Sunday 18 February 2018

Sweet serenity the secret to success as Clarke takes stock of Open glory

Enormity of Sandwich achievement starting to sink in for an exhausted but profoundly happy champion, writes Oliver Brown

Darren Clarke, Open champion, looks spent. Four days of Guinness-fuelled hedonism have exacted a visible toll, forming a dark penumbra around his normally dancing eyes.

Adjusting slowly to this bracing Portrush day, he has just returned from a quick dash down to Belfast to renew his US visa. He needs it, you see, having rather emphatically secured his exemption for next month's US PGA in Atlanta. En route, he carried the Claret Jug in the car and cranked the power chords of AC/DC to maximum volume. He realised it was the first moment he had enjoyed to himself in a wild, transformative week.

Barely has Clarke sat down in the lounge at Royal Portrush, his local club, than an elderly couple edge towards him, offering their tribute to a "wonderful man". He replies a little perfunctorily, as if jaded by the stream of plaudits. "There's a large part of me that likes private time away from everything," he admits in this, his only national newspaper interview since his gloriously cathartic victory at Sandwich at the age of 42.

"Whether it's with Allison or my two boys, I will be looking forward to a few days off." Sons Tyrone and Conor, 12 and 10, have been loath to stop touching the trophy since Clarke whisked it back to the family ranch. They are regulars here on Portrush's fabled Dunluce links, where a knifing wind seldom relents as the Atlantic surf boils in the distance.

But the presence of Allison Campbell, Clarke's willowy blonde fiancée, has also been ubiquitous these past seven days. As was illustrated by two heartfelt kisses at the side of the 18th green, the Open triumph owed much to the tender support she has given.

Ever since she met Clarke on a blind date in 2009, this former Miss Northern Ireland, more recently the head of her own modelling agency, has exerted an influence impossible to overstate. "Allison has been absolutely brilliant for me," admits Clarke, suddenly reflective. "She's a businesswoman, very smart and switched on. She's media-savvy. She has been so supportive of me.

"She just keeps pushing me on all the time. And I feel very fortunate that I've found as good a person as Allison." Inescapably, the figure always in the backdrop to their relationship is Heather, the first wife whom Clarke lost to breast cancer five years ago.

Asked if he felt an upsurge of raw emotions during the Open presentation ceremony, when he spoke of "somebody looking down", he pauses. "Of course I did, but with age comes experience, allegedly. I suppose I was trying more not to forget about anybody. It was awkward for me, because I wanted to mention Heather in the right way, without offending or upsetting Allison. I hope I managed to do that." Clarke remains a complex character: a peculiar compound of bouncing bonhomie and glowering aggression. The second element still flickers in the course of this conversation, through clipped responses even to more innocuous lines of inquiry. Was his achievement magnified, given that it was his 20th Open?

"Lots of people have played 25 Opens and never won it." Would hackers the world over not love the images of him dragging sneakily on a cigarette? "I smoke, like normal people would." Does he consider himself the 'anti-athlete'? "I'm not seriously unfit, put it that way." The gentler side resurfaces, though, when he considers how much he has mellowed since the days of foul tempers, when he would cut reporters down with a single withering comment after a bad round. "An awful lot," he claims. "I was very volatile, and made lots of really bad decisions. But I think getting older, I'm a little bit more accepting of my own mistakes and those of others. If I can't do it perfectly all the time, why should I expect other people to?"

For all his softening, Clarke reached a professional nadir as recently as three months ago. In an episode little documented, he beat a sorry retreat from the Trophee Hassan II in Morocco with weekend rounds of 81 and 75, promptly telling manager 'Chubby' Chandler that he had had enough. "It was never a case of quitting, I was just totally and utterly fed up. I was going to go straight to Malaysia, but Chubby said, 'Forget about it. Just go away.' So we went to our house in the Bahamas and chilled there for three weeks.

"It was just us and the kids, and my sister and her two children. I had a wonderful time on the beach. One of my big passions outside of golf is fishing. I fly-fish a lot, and down near where our house is in the Bahamas, there's some of the best bone-fishing in the world. Fishing is the only thing that really switches me off."

The respite plainly worked, given that Clarke proceeded to win his very next event, in Majorca. Put it down to another wise intervention by Chandler, the one-time pro who has shepherded him through success, trauma, anger and, of course, the after-effects of monumental drinking sessions for more than two decades. "We met all those years ago on a handshake," Clarke recalls. "We have had a few rows, but not many. He has been there for me through thick and thin, and invariably his advice is correct. But as well as being my manager, he has been a closer friend." Tantalisingly, the US PGA could yet yield the remarkable spectacle of the 'Chubby slam'. Already the 'Chubby three-ball' is guaranteed, given a tradition at the last of the season's four Majors of sending the Masters, US Open and Open champions out together. That roster reads: Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy, Clarke -- all of them stablemates at Chandler's International Sports Management (ISM).

Clarke explains that a culture has evolved at ISM in which success tends automatically to breed more of the same. "There's a huge rivalry between us all, but also a huge respect. We all get on great, otherwise we wouldn't be in Chubby's stable. We hang out and eat with each other a lot. But stepping on to the first tee, the competition is there and always has been." Belatedly, Clarke can kick back with the satisfaction of one who has realised his frightening natural talent. All too easily we forget how in 2000, the year when Tiger Woods won three Majors, he beat the then world No 1 4&3 in the Accenture Matchplay final in California. Here, he clutches the Major prize to prove that such a result was no anomaly.

"I've had more than my fair share of annoyance and frustration with the game, but in terms of my own ball-striking ability, have I lost any of it? No. What I did a few years ago was to hit the ball well on a consistent basis, whereas through the lean spell I hit it well on a less frequent basis. Lately, I've been starting to hit the ball the way I want to, which has made a big difference."

Not as much of a difference, one suspects, as the overhaul of his attitude on the course. Once, Clarke was too fragile to finish off an Open from a winning position; indeed, in 1997, he led at Troon and yet, on the second hole of his final round, shanked his tee-shot onto the beach. By contrast, the demeanour he took into his Sunday afternoon at Royal St George's was notable solely for its serenity.

"I was very calm, because all I was doing was thinking of each golf shot on its own, not the outcome. Everything was about the process. So my mind was never, at any stage, thinking of the future." Bob Rotella, the American sports psychologist responsible for this outlook, had told him on the practice putting green to trust his stroke. That message resonated when he sank a slippery downhill par putt from 10 feet at the first: a tonic that functioned, to borrow from Peter Alliss, "like an Alka-Seltzer", settling him down. "It most certainly could have been different," Clarke concedes.

"But I have strived for my whole career and I have managed to do it. The Claret Jug, to me, is the biggest and best trophy in the world. There's no amount of cash that can buy that. My name's on there. When they handed the trophy to me on Sunday night, my name was already there. That just means the world to me." Even in his stout-induced exhaustion, Clarke flashes a grin expressive of the most profound happiness.


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