Golf Masters: Darren Clarke relishing Augusta return
THE last time Darren Clarke was at the Masters in 2007 he was not really there at all.
It was the Northern Irishman's first major since his wife Heather died of breast cancer and eight months on he was still coming to terms with the loss.
"I was just going through the motions at that stage," Clarke told Press Association Sport before his return to Augusta as Open champion.
"I just wasn't at the races. Golf was not meaningless to me, but it just wasn't high on my priorities. My mind wasn't there."
It showed. Clarke started with an 83 and despite a 12-shot improvement the following day, he was packing his bags.
When he finished that season 138th on the European Tour money list he could not be sure he would ever take the drive down Magnolia Lane again.
But he will now do so as a major champion himself, exempt not only for this year's event, but the next four as well.
"I didn't think I wouldn't be back. It was more just that the golf course was not the place for me," he added.
"Being exempt for the Open for nearly another 20 years is at the top of the list of what has come from my win at Sandwich, but five more trips to Augusta is next," said the 43-year-old, who was almost 30 before he played there for the first time in 1998.
Stablemate Lee Westwood had beaten him to it by a year and Clarke remembers receiving a club menu with the words "Missing you lots" just to rub it in.
His second-place finish in the Open that summer helped to secure his debut and he got there so early he was given badge number two.
"The defending champion gets number one and the rest are handed out in the order you arrive. That's how early I was.
"It was obviously good to get there. I stayed in a little hotel and coming out of the clubhouse it just looked like a sea of green.
"It was an amazing experience - and I played really well at the weekend."
After making the cut with only a stroke to spare he eagled the 13th and 15th in a third-round 67 and by adding a 69 finished joint eighth.
Clarke's best start came in 2003. He held a three-stroke lead after a 66, but fell away badly in a tournament hit by bad weather.
"That first round I didn't make a mistake. The course was playing really long and I just kept hitting it where you're meant to and doing the right thing," he recalled.
"But it was also the week I realised I needed to get myself in decent shape.
"It's a course where you can hit good shots and not get rewarded. Everything's in front of you, but you can stare at a possible double bogey on every hole if you hit it in the wrong place.
"It's more difficult than it looks on TV and it has the ability to make us look stupid."
Before last year's Open Clarke could reflect on a number of missed opportunities in the majors - and that made his victory, achieved from 111th in the world, all the more satisfying.
"I put them all down to good learning experiences on reflection, although that's very easy for me to say now that I've got a major.
"It sounds a bit patronising in a way, but I learnt so much."
And now he is Augusta-bound again.
"The thrill of going back is not quite the same as going there for the first time because I know where all the potential disasters are now, but of course it'll be wonderful to experience it again.
"My life has completely changed again in golfing terms because of last year and I am very, very grateful for that."
It has also changed off the course too, with his engagement to former Miss Northern Ireland Alison Campbell.