Thursday 8 December 2016

Clarke's time to seize the moment

Published 26/09/2016 | 02:30

The serious business of the Ryder Cup starts today for Darren Clarke. Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images
The serious business of the Ryder Cup starts today for Darren Clarke. Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Darren Clarke, captain and commander of Team Europe, finally gets down to the serious business of Ryder Cup leadership when his players gather in Minneapolis today for the start of a week all concerned will remember for the rest of their lives.

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Touchdown is scheduled for around 1.10pm local time (7.10pm Irish time) and, as the media circus around the arrivals hall surrounds Clarke and his men, the long wait will finally be over for the captain.

At last, tangible work to be done. Five days to go before the first ball is struck at 7.35am (12.35pm Irish) on Friday to start the 41st Ryder Cup match.

A lot done, more to do, before he is satisfied that no stone has been left unturned in his quest to send out the holders perfectly prepared for the challenge of retaining the Cup.

Clarke is a big man in stature, a man with a big personality which is best described as 'mercurial' when golf throws him a curve ball, particularly on the greens.

Few golf writers have avoided the brusque hand-off as he stomps past muttering 'not now, not now' when the game has sent his internal rev counter way into the danger zone - something which has happened all too often since his Open Championship win at Royal St George's in 2011.

And then, the counterpoint.

Charming Darren, 'ordinary bloke' Darren, who loves a pint and a big cigar and who will be just one of the lads in his local pub in Portrush.

The professional golfer who used all his influence to attract top players to Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links for a massive fundraising event in 1998 to aid the victims of the disgusting Omagh bombing atrocity.

The interested, courteous, helpful Darren who charmed the gathering at St Anne's golf club in Dollymount recently with an informative putting 'master class', tinged with self-deprecating humour.

"This is a drill for a three-foot putt - hope I don't miss this one."

Making sure to give the club pro at St Anne's respect, standing back for the pro to give his input on the technique of putting.

Afterwards, revealing in his media interviews that a night of sound sleep is a luxury which has eluded him in the last few weeks as the date with destiny edges ever closer.

The racing mind has kept him awake, churning over possible pairings, potential match-ups against the Americans, and checking through the myriad of details, big and small, the importance of which only those on the very inside of a Ryder Cup team set-up can appreciate.

Ultimately, there is the realisation that he is on a hiding to nothing. Who wants to be the captain that oversees the end of a great run for Europe? Certainly not Darren Clarke.

History

And yet, the weight of history is against him. In the previous 40 stagings of the Ryder Cup, the away team has won only 13 times.

Just four European skippers have enjoyed the privilege of humbling the Americans on their own soil - Tony Jacklin in 1987, which was the first time the USA lost at home; Bernard Gallacher at Oak Hill in 1995; Bernhard Langer at Oakland Hills in 2004; and Jose Maria Olazabal in the 'Miracle at Medinhah' four years ago.

Fifth time lucky? It's a big ask, but be assured that Clarke has left no stone unturned in his obsessive quest to keep the men in Blue at the forefront of this great biennial contest.

The European captaincy after Paul McGinley was always going to be interesting, given McGinley's superb leadership, his organisation of the team room at Gleneagles, the motivational speaking of Sir Alex Ferguson, and the quality of his man-management.

It has been suggested that McGinley raised the bar for captains who succeeded him, but the good news is that his 'template' has shown the way.

McGinley brought everything he learned as a winning player three times from captains Sam Torrance (2002), Langer (2004), Ian Woosnam (2006), and as a vice-captain to Colin Montgomerie in 2010, and Olazabal in 2012, and distilled it into his recipe for success.

Clarke is no fool. He has taken McGinley's package into his own calculations and added his personal ideas into the mix.

He has left nothing to chance. His speech at the opening ceremony on Thursday has been carefully crafted, and delivery has been practised under professional broadcasters' supervision.

Earlier in the year he spoke of wanting to consult with proven leaders in other sports.

Jurgen Klopp, and Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish were on his 'must contact' list, as was Sir Alex Ferguson, who was such a hit with the European team at Gleneagles in 2014.

Clive Woodward, the mastermind of England's Rugby World Cup success in 2003, and Irish Rugby hero Paul O'Connell got favourable mention in Clarke's dispatches.

He stayed coy about exactly who would turn up to give motivational talks this week, although O'Connell is down to play at Hazeltine in tomorrow's nine-hole Celebrity Match. This will be a scramble format, with four groups of four players competing. Among the celebs on the list - the field will be confirmed today - were actors Kurt Russell, and Bill Murray, musician Huey Lewis, Alessandro Del Piero, Niall Horan, and Paul O'Connell.

Events such as this are sideshows and will not occupy a whit of Darren Clarke's attention. He has too much on his mind for distractions.

The Eurasia Cup match in Kuala Lumpur last January afforded Clarke the opportunity to test out his plans and theories and the effectiveness of a comprehensive statistics dossier.

Five of his Ryder Cup side - Danny Willett, Andy Sullivan, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Chris Wood, and Lee Westwood - played on that team. All finished with 100 per cent records against their Asian opponents who included Byeong Hun An, Thongchai Jaidee, and Kiradech Aphibarnrat.And so, the big week begins. Should he succeed, how would Clarke rate this in comparison with his Open victory? "I'll let you know at the end of the week, that's an honest answer. I wouldn't say yes and I wouldn't say no. Obviously I'd be very proud.

"I was massively proud to win the Open Championship in 2011. I was massively proud to be able to hit that drive 320 yards down the first hole at The K Club on that first tee - to this day I have no idea how I did it. But will being captain of the Ryder Cup be bigger than any of those? We'll see.

"Would it the difference between being a winning captain and a losing captain? It probably would be, but would it take away from anything I've tried to put into it?

"No, not at all, because I know that I've put my heart and soul into it," he said.

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