Captain's call proving a timely boost for Clarke
The Ryder Cup vice-captaincy is suffusing Darren Clarke with a rosy glow this summer.
Already he is discharging his duties with the utmost seriousness, criticising even a close ally such as Padraig Harrington for not playing the final qualifying event, the Johnnie Walker Championship, at Gleneagles next week.
Clarke, who made such a memorable contribution to Europe's triumph at the K Club in 2006 -- and all on the strength of a wild-card selection -- knows what he would do: "For me, if I didn't think I'd done enough for a pick, I'd definitely play." Clarke is renewed by his restoration to the land where he has always felt most valued. He tells how back home in Northern Ireland, passers-by shake him by the hand and say, 'Good luck, Darren' -- a ritual unthinkable in his former habitat of Surrey stockbroker land. "I'd lived in and around London for about 10 years and it had served its purpose," Clarke says. "I want my kids to grow up here, and for them to be as proud about coming from Northern Ireland as I am."
His voice betrays an optimism and vigour almost forgotten in the four dark years since he lost his wife, Heather, to breast cancer. Today, he could scarcely be less introspective as he works with children out on the range at his golf academy in Greenmount, Co Antrim. He is reminded of the mentoring role he used to assume for Rory McIlroy, the province's greatest golfing prodigy. McIlroy joined the Darren Clarke Foundation aged 12, whereupon Clarke promptly handed the young man his phone number. Ever since the pair have enjoyed an endearingly close teacher-student relationship, with Clarke taking every chance to play practice rounds with his protege and to smooth the ascent to the top of the professional game.
"I wasn't a bit surprised," Clarke insists, when asked about McIlroy's remarkable season, which continued with a third-place finish in the US PGA at Whistling Straits last weekend. Indeed, his advice on how the 21-year-old can translate such rich form into a first Major is best encapsulated by a story of their exchange at this year's Irish Open. As they stood on the 18th green after the second round at Killarney, he simply walked over to his playing partner and said: "Stay patient, you muppet." When Clarke finds time to analyse his career, he may find he derives deeper satisfaction from the men he has inspired than the trophies he has won.
Already he, McIlroy and US Open champion Graeme McDowell form an Ulster equivalent of The Three Degrees: symbols of improbable sporting success in a place of just 1.6 million people. As for McDowell, he is the reason why Clarke is heading back to Northern Ireland in loved-up mood.
'G-Mac' introduced him last year to Alison Campbell, a former Miss Northern Ireland, and Clarke conveys the attitude of one who has found his match. Most importantly in his estimation, Ms Campbell has apparently grown close to his two boys. Tyrone, 11, and Conor, eight, lost their mother in 2006 and Clarke has consistently made them his priority.
"I feel they should have a sense of belonging and somewhere to call home, just as I did," he explains. "The advantage is that I can see them both more regularly and spend more time with them. Here they can be part of a community -- now they just need to lose their English accents." Only Clarke knows how inextricably the happiness in his personal life and the revival of his game are linked, but his recent results make the point eloquently enough.
"I first started to notice the change six weeks ago, when I played JP McManus's charity event in Limerick," he says. "I won there, and from nowhere I had the confidence to play better in the important tournaments. I did really well at Loch Lomond, then qualified for the Open. It was just a pity I couldn't put it together at Whistling Straits, where my putter was stone-cold."
Clarke's wobbly display by Lake Michigan, where he finished in a tie for 48th, at least helped him to conclude that he would not play in this year's Ryder Cup, but it is a disappointment he can bear. When Colin Montgomerie, during the Open at St Andrews, knocked on the door of his room at the Old Course Hotel to offer him a role as one of Europe's three vice-captains, Clarke needed, as he recalls, just "two seconds" to accept.
Montgomerie replied he wanted Clarke in south Wales "one way or another". As the memories return of Clarke's Ryder Cup in 2006, when he played through the searing emotions of losing Heather to galvanise Europe, it is hard to fault Montgomerie's logic. As a more carefree figure among the backroom staff, Clarke threatens to be even more of a force, with his children as his inspiration.