Wednesday 21 March 2018

Darren Clarke to raise decibel levels in another major challenge

Europe have chosen well for next Ryder Cup, unlike the Americans

Darren Clarke
Darren Clarke

Dermot Gilleece

While the Americans are seeking refuge in selective amnesia, Europe will have a truly formidable match-player at the helm when they defend the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National in 2016.

In the process, both sides appear to have found peace and harmony to replace potentially damaging division.

Anyone who doubted golf as a funny old game, needed only reminding that after waiting 60 years for a Major winner to emulate Fred Daly's achievement of 1947, we had Pádraig Harrington doing it back-to-back. Now, having had 95 years without an Irish Ryder Cup captain, we've again been presented with two in a row.

In 1990, his last year as an amateur, Darren Clarke won four match-play championships - the Spanish, North of Ireland, South of Ireland and the Irish Close - to compile a victorious run of 24 matches. In San Diego 10 years later, he became a hugely impressive winner of the Accenture World Match Play title at La Costa, beating no fewer than six Ryder Cup players, including Tiger Woods by 4&3 in the 36-hole final.

The addition of 18 international victories, including the 2011 Open Championship, gives him competitive credentials beyond question. But in over 500 tournament appearances since sharing 50th place as an amateur in the 1990 Irish Open at Portmarnock, he has been remarkably loyal to the European Tour.

Such matters become significant when a Ryder Cup captain is being chosen. They guaranteed no raising of eyebrows when Clarke's candidacy gained momentum in the wake of his Open triumph at Royal St George's. And it assured him of support from today's top Europeans, led by Rory McIlroy, even against the background of a bitter rift with Paul McGinley.

Though this alienation of one-time friends could be seen as highly regrettable, it hasn't diminished Clarke's capacity to be a worthy successor to the Dubliner. And the nature of the latest selection process involving a panel of five - McGinley, Colin Montgomerie, José Maria Olazabal, David Howell and European Tour chief executive George O'Grady - averted the prospect of further dirty linen being washed in public.

In an entirely different context, it also relieved the other two candidates, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Thomas Bjorn, from having to lay out their qualifications for the job in front of tour colleagues. O'Grady found this to have been especially regrettable two years ago when Montgomerie was a candidate for Gleneagles.

As it happened, the fact that he wished Clarke well after a unanimous decision served only to heighten McGinley's standing as someone of the highest integrity. Having delivered exemplary leadership at Gleneagles, his behaviour continues to impress.

From October 2012, when the Daily Mail announced Clarke as a shoo-in for the captaincy in 2014, he and his management company, ISM, seemed to become embroiled in a political mess in their anxiety to land a job, estimated to be worth £2 million to the recipient. Things were said and done which, I'm sure, Clarke greatly regrets, not least because of a remarkably caring side he has shown in other circumstances.

One need only reflect on events at Portmarmock Links in September 1998, a month after his older son, Tyrone, was born. By way of responding to the devastation of the Omagh bomb outrage, he single-handedly set up a pro-am event which raised more than £350,000 for the victims, when leading European Tour colleagues were persuaded to compete.

On other occasions I would prefer not to remember, I witnessed his enormous potential being stifled by perfectionism, often the sportsperson's most crippling affliction. Even while appearing to be totally at peace with the world, with an expensive cigar stuck in his mouth, the red mist would almost invariably descend when he failed to perform as he felt he should.

Five successive Ryder Cup appearances from 1997 to 2006, along with a vice-captain's role in 2010 and 2012, will provide all the experience he needs to be a very effective leader. And one can imagine the language in the team-room being a lot more colourful than at Gleneagles, with the decibel level raised appreciably if things are going wrong.

Most importantly, he will take considerable comfort from the expectation of Davis Love leading the American challenge, rather than having to figure out the machinations of a wily strategist such as Paul Azinger.

With a reported net worth of $35 million, Love is what could be described as a nice, God-fearing American. And we haven't seen many of this ilk lead in winning Ryder Cup teams in recent decades.

By giving Love another shot at the captaincy, the PGA of America are effectively closing the door on the painful experience of Gleneagles and the unfortunate tenure of their erstwhile president Ted Bishop. It's as if the ill-conceived Tom Watson episode never happened.

In looking towards Hazeltine '16, they appear to be seeking a seamless transition from Medinah '12, where everything seemed in place for a resounding home success, until the remarkable happenings of a memorable final day. Mind you, that particular American camp was not an unbridled love-fest in that the captain, according to Tony Jacklin, experienced problems in "pushing aside for the week the egos of megastars and multi-millionaires."

Meanwhile, we can but wonder what the participants were talking about in the much-vaunted 11-man task force set up to examine America's Ryder Cup future in the wake of Gleneagles.

It can be taken that the views of Woods and Phil Mickelson were ignored, given their slim chances of being team members in two years' time. And instead of the steel which Watson was expected to infuse into the side, they are looking to a hugely-gifted player who lacked the grit to approach his full potential, even with 20 tour wins including the PGA Championship.

Clarke will enjoy the memory of their Ryder Cup clash at Oakland Hills in 2004 when, with the overall match effectively decided, he came from two down with three to play against Love, to gain a half through wins in birdie on the 16th and 17th. And he will also be aware of moderate performances from the American prior to that.

Like Love's winning debut in 1993 when another rookie, Costantino Rocca, was one up with two to play at The Belfry, only to succumb to frail nerves with losing bogeys at the 17th and 18th. Four years later, when Clarke came onto the scene at Valderrama, Love played the crucial 13th to 16th holes in three-over par when losing 3&2 to Per-Ulrik Johansson.

Though the American had an admirable 5&3 singles win over Peter McEvoy on the second day of the Walker Cup at Pine Valley in 1985, he didn't bring that level of match-play performance into professional ranks. So, if the objective is to continue as gracious losers, the Americans are looking in the right direction. At the end of 1993, when Clarke had only the Belgian Open to his credit after three full seasons on tour, Montgomerie felt moved to remark: "He's good. He's very, very good. He has as much talent as anyone in world golf." But the Scot added pointedly: "He's got to learn to use it."

In what has become a career-long learning process, one of his greatest challenges beckons.

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