Saturday 24 August 2019

'To get to this point, it's been an incredible journey'

Darren Clarke is looking forward to seeing how the best players in the world tackle the challenge of the Dunluce Links this week. Photo: AP Photo/Jon Super
Darren Clarke is looking forward to seeing how the best players in the world tackle the challenge of the Dunluce Links this week. Photo: AP Photo/Jon Super

Brian Keogh

Darren Clarke loves a nice motor, but when it comes to driving ambition this week he has just one word of advice - caution.

The Dunluce Links might offer a plethora of early birdie chances in a southerly breeze, but it's a capricious beast, ready to bite without warning.

While he's honoured and thrilled to have been asked to hit the opening tee shot in The Open's long-awaited return to the north coast, he's just as excited to see how the game's elite deal with a course he's loved since he first played it as a nine-year-old.

He remains enamoured of the ever-changing challenge, the cunning angles and elevation changes, those fiendishly raised greens and the voracious rough of Harry Colt's 'tour de force'.

"It will be interesting to see, especially for myself, how some of the best players in the world try to play this golf course," he said, looking bronzed and more laid back than the Clarke of old - frequently on edge and irritable in the 19 Opens he played before finally landing the coveted Claret Jug eight years ago.

"You can try and take it on at your peril if you want to, or you can try to play smart and take it over corners, but with doing that you need to be very committed to your lines.

Committed

"Because if you're taking an iron and you push that five, ten yards, you're in thick rough. Lost ball. You have to be committed. It's going to be interesting to see how the guys play it."

As the song goes, you need to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em unless you have the brilliant driving game to conquer all.

That said, there are myriad options from every tee and Clarke, while not quite a ceremonial golfer just yet (something of the virtuoso remains inside him), he couldn't say no to hitting the first shot.

"Mr [Martin] Slumbers (R&A chief executive) asked me about three weeks ago if I would do them the honour of hitting the opening tee shot. And it's Royal Portrush, and when The R&A asks you, it's a definite yes. I said I'd love it."

He loves the test so much, it showed in his eyes when describing the challenges.

"There are holes out there you can see guys hitting driver, 3-wood, 2-iron, 3-iron, 4-iron, 5-iron," Clarke said, explaining the essence of the Dunluce puzzle. "It's all down to how they see the hole.

"But it's paramount to hit the fairways. If you're not in the fairways, you're going to struggle to get around. The thing about Royal Portrush, it's a fair golf course. If you play well around Portrush, you should have the opportunity to score well.

"If you're missing too many shots, you're not going to get around Portrush, and that's the way it is. That's why it's a Harry Colt masterpiece."

Clarke's 2011 success at Royal St George's played a significant part in The R&A's decision to seriously consider taking The Open back to Portrush for the first time since 1951.

But unlike Rory McIlroy, who grew up in the post-Good Friday Agreement era, he experienced the violence of 'the Troubles' first hand while working as a barman in his hometown of Dungannon as an 18-year old and still has to pinch himself to see The Open return.

"The bomb scare was at 8.30 - everybody out," Clarke recounted. "Bomb went off at 9.00 and the place was flattened.

"That was life in Northern Ireland. Bombs were going off quite frequently. And a lot of people, unfortunately, paid a heavy penalty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that was our life back there at that stage.

"Whether we were ever going to have a tournament such as this, it was beyond the realms of possibility. It was just never going to happen. So to get to the point where you guys are all sitting here doing this has been an incredible journey for what we've all come through."

He added: "Will there be tears? No. I'll just be very proud that we have it back here in Northern Ireland. I think the other guys [Rory, Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell] would say the same sort of thing.."

When asked for a likely winner, he didn't upset his local audience.

"Obviously I'd take Rory, wouldn't I? Who else would I say? I think I've played quite a bit with Adam Scott the past couple days. And he has been - what's the best word - imperious."

As for his old pal Tiger Woods, who found just one fairway bunker when winning at St Andrews and Hoylake, he would never write him off, even if he wonders whether leaving the driver in the bag is wise choice here.

"Nothing wrong with his driver, I'm just saying he likes to be the master tactician," he mused. "You can never write off Tiger Woods."

The high expectations that often dogged Clarke when he was in his prime have been replaced by great expectations for The Open.

"As you guys know, I've always been good and bad, pretty hard on myself in the past," he said. "But I'm determined this week to enjoy it the best I can.

"Whether I play well or don't play well, it's a huge thing for all the Irish golfers, for Northern Ireland, for me, that lives here a little bit, to have The Open Championship. So I'll try and enjoy it as much as I possibly can."

Irish Independent

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