Saturday 24 February 2018

Introducing the darker side of Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke

Captain of Europe, Darren Clarke
Captain of Europe, Darren Clarke

Oliver Brown

Darren Clarke’s moods change as suddenly as an autumn sky: calm one moment, save for the odd fleeting cloud, then savage and glowering the next. He carries a reputation for volatility that has only grown during his 26 years on tour. Such was his propensity, back in his playing heyday, for tearing strips off journalists after a rotten round that it would be a trial even to approach him outside the recorder’s hut.

“The incidents became repetitive to the point of me becoming inured to them,” one says. “It was a stressful time.”

Age, coupled with the honour of heading to Hazeltine as Europe’s Ryder Cup captain, ought to have softened him. But a few serrated edges remain. I discover as much on a visit to see Clarke in Sardinia, where his facade of diplomacy is quick to crumble. What should be a relaxed meeting, sitting down with a beer beside the 10th tee on the Costa Smeralda’s enchanting Pevero Golf Club where he is hosting an invitational event, is complicated by Clarke’s notorious testiness.

His answers, even on this balmy Mediterranean afternoon, are often irritable. I ask, for example, how he intends to blood the rookies in his squad when they tee off in front of a Minneapolis crowd hell-bent on avenging three straight Ryder Cup defeats. Clarke has a terrific story here, if he could be bothered to tell it: during his own debut at Valderrama in 1997, under the leadership of Seve Ballesteros, he suffered the indignity of being rested for the entire first day. “The rookies have just got to enjoy themselves,” he says, perfunctorily. But does he not remember how, the first time, the scale of the occasion was brought home to him? “No. No, you know it’s coming. You know how big it is.”

Matters become worse when I mention Brexit. It will be strange, in this year of all years, to see British Ryder Cup golfers draping themselves in the 12 gold stars of the European Union flag, but Clarke turns passive-aggressive at the very suggestion. “Why? Explain to me why,” he fires back, seething. Well, a fairly substantial contingent of your players belong to a country that has just renounced the EU, I reply.

“So what? No matter what happened, we are still going to Hazeltine representing the continent of Europe. Guys from Switzerland and Norway can make the team, and they’re not in the EU, either. We will use the European flag.”

One day, somebody might care to remind Clarke of his own homespun philosophy on life. “Rudeness is my No 1 hate,” he said once. “‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are two of the easiest things in the world to say.” Odd, then, how he struggles to practise what he preaches. On his day, there is nobody in golf more brusque than Clarke. He all but conceded as much after his Open triumph at Royal St George’s in 2011, acknowledging: “I was a horrible prat sometimes.” Within a year, he had reverted to the volcanic tempers of old.

“I had two softball questions about the Masters for him,” says Chris Gay of the Augusta Chronicle, who met Clarke in 2012. “He couldn’t have been more unpleasant if he tried.” Clarke is a truly confounding character. You would think he could be content, having acquired the kinds of honours and trappings of privilege he could never have envisaged while growing up in County Tyrone. When Clarke first donned his diplomatic robes as Europe’s captain, Chubby Chandler, his long-time manager, took him aside to say: “This completes our circle. You have won a major, you have won two World Golf Championships. This, right now, is the cream.”

But there is a flipside to such heavy responsibility. For one thing, Clarke has a weakness for lapsing into ‘captain-ese’, that very 21st-century Ryder Cup lexicon where team leaders insist on lavishing one another with treacly platitudes. Clarke has already described Davis Love III, his opposite number in Minnesota next week, as a “wonderful man”. As such, even a mild question about why the Americans have gone back to Love, the man who lost at Medinah in 2012, stirs his ire.

“Just because Davis lost, does that make him a bad captain? From what I’ve heard, Davis was brilliant with the guys the whole week.” That may be so, but good captaincy is about more than being the players’ best friend. Clarke, one senses, knows this – he will, according to those close to him, run the tightest of ships at Hazeltine – but he is so earnest about his position that he will not let slip anything that could be construed as criticism. Any reference to the Americans’ tactics ends with “and rightly so”. Any nod towards the raucousness of the US fans is qualified with “and that what makes the Ryder Cup so special”.

Falling prey to self-importance is an occupational hazard for captains in this event. It happened to Colin Montgomerie, who was fond of likening his leadership at Celtic Manor to that of a troop commander at Camp Bastion. It is also becoming noticeable with Clarke, who will, once he appoints his compadre Lee Westwood as his eyes and ears in the team room next week, have no fewer than six vice-captains in his corner (even if Westwood will not be formally designated as such).

Six: that is half the playing team. There are presidents with smaller entourages. Could there ever be, I wonder, a danger of too many chefs spoiling the broth? “No,” Clarke says. “In this scenario, more knowledge is better than lack of knowledge.” He will, at least, have an eclectic blend of personalities among his lieutenants. There is Danish bruiser Thomas Bjorn, who has been sending Clarke screeds of WhatsApp messages about possible pairings. Then he has saturnine Scotsman Paul Lawrie, equally capable of telling it like it is.

“There are no shades of grey with Paul,” he says. “Only black and white.” Let us not forget, either, the presence among the backroom staff of Ian Poulter, the belligerent, bug-eyed sorcerer of Medinah, or of elder statesman Sam Torrance. In all likelihood, Torrance will perform the role filled by Des Smyth for Paul McGinley at Gleneagles in 2014, providing a kind of daycare service for the four bruised egos who have to be left out for the first morning’s foursomes.

If this is starting to sound like the cast of Reservoir Dogs on spikes, it is refreshing to discover that Padraig Harrington will also be on hand to offer gentler, more cerebral counsel. While they are polar opposites as personalities, Clarke was effectively compelled to call upon the wisdom of Harrington, who is the frontrunner to be chosen as European captain for the next Ryder Cup in Paris in 2018.

Be in no doubt, though, that Clarke will be calling the tune. Ever since he was elevated to the captaincy 19 months ago, he has treated the role with an all-consuming attention to detail. He has been a regular visitor of late to the BBC’s Northern Ireland studios in Belfast, rehearsing his opening ceremony speech in front of the autocue, several times with his Europe suit on. “If I deliver a good speech, I reckon that is worth half a point to us,” he has told his advisors. “I want my team to be proud of me when I stand up there.”

Clarke has sought inspiration on leadership from diverse sources. During this year’s Masters at Augusta, he spent a few evenings in the company of Alex Ferguson. One of the subjects they discussed was the challenge of defusing personality clashes in a team. Ferguson explained how he dealt with feuding strikers Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham at Manchester United, two men who always detested each other, so that Clarke could choose his pairings wisely. With four days to go, it is understood that Europe’s line-up for the Friday foursomes is already set.

Many of Clarke’s preparation routines have been uncommonly particular. Such is his interest in fashion, he has focused on the fabrics and shoe types his players are wearing. Even the place mats in the team room have been designed precisely to his prescription. As for forensic dissection of statistics, he has no equal.

Julia Fischer-Wasels, an assistant Ryder Cup director, has furnished him with details about every one of the players’ individual strengths, as applicable to Hazeltine. At this year’s Players Championship at Sawgrass, Clarke would sit down with certain players and illustrate how they needed to refine their wedge play from 110 yards.

What, you wonder, could possibly go wrong? For Clarke, the answer lies in the mirror. Even in his guise as the elder statesman at Hazeltine, there are two Darren Clarkes: one being the Guinness-swilling, hail-fellow-well-met raconteur, the other a smouldering sulk who is his own worst enemy. For this week at least, his European charges must hope he finds a way to resolve the conflict.

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