Sport Golf

Thursday 19 April 2018

Trying to find peace of mind

Clarke must flick the switch in his head to the ‘unconscious’ state that brought 2011 glory in order to retain Claret Jug

Darren Clarke knows he must find his best form at Lytham if he is to retain the Claret Jug he won last year
Darren Clarke knows he must find his best form at Lytham if he is to retain the Claret Jug he won last year

KARL MacGINTY

DARREN CLARKE is a mass of contradictions. He became the people's champion of golf last July in Sandwich. Already established as a folk hero by his bravery and defiance in the face of overwhelming personal grief at the 2006 Ryder Cup, Clarke brought the world to its feet when he raised the Claret Jug in triumph at Royal St George's.

He found perspective in tragedy and forged, with his two boys Tyrone and Conor, a new life back home in Northern Ireland, which has been further enriched by his marriage in Bermuda last April to the vivacious Alison Campbell.

Yet when it comes to the relatively unimportant task of propelling a little, white golf ball around a big field, Clarke still can be as temperamental and highly-strung as a thoroughbred racehorse.

At 43, he remains one of the most naturally gifted golfers on the planet. Frankly, it's hard to think of a better bad-weather player.

For example, Clarke's seismic first round at the 2003 US Masters, when he marched imperiously around storm-lashed Augusta National to an astonishing, unrivalled 66, is burned into the memory.

Dragged

The overriding importance of physical fitness in modern golf was brought home in no uncertain terms to Clarke over the next 48 hours as he dragged his heavy frame up and down Augusta's heavy fairways for 54 holes.

For sure, Clarke's no gym-bunny ... yet his Trojan workload on and off the course stands in contrast to the reputation he enjoys as an easy-going, fun-loving broth of a boy.

That particular costume often gets checked in at the locker-room door. Don't be fooled by this girth or the mischievous grin ... Clarke's desire is so intense, it's almost volcanic.

Though blessed with the hands of a conjurer, this magician also has an unnerving penchant for sawing himself in half.

For the past 12 months, for example, Clarke's determination to "play like an Open champion instead of just playing" tied him in such knots on the golf course he's only been able to begin un-picking them in recent weeks.

Just in time, thank heaven, for this week's defence of the Claret Jug at Royal Lytham and St Annes, that glorious old golf links nestling between phalanxes of red brick houses which, on a clear day, can be seen from the top of the Blackpool Tower.

The uneven and usually hard and fast links land upon which the British Open is played, plus the wild excesses of summer seaside weather in these islands, lends a mystical edge to golf's oldest and biggest Major.

Links golf requires the touch and imagination of an artist, plus strength of character to deal with the misfortune, even injustice, which bad bounces inevitably bring.

Lytham, with more than 200 bunkers, is about as far as one can get from the slide-rule, target golf played week in, week out on the PGA Tour.

Ten Opens have been played here since 1926. Clarke tied third behind David Duval on the Open's most recent visit in 2001. The embers of hope he stoked with a glorious birdie out of deep rough at 16 were doused by a double-bogey out of a bunker at the penultimate hole.

During the first two rounds of the 1996 Open here, Clarke played with a toothy young American amateur with a fanciful name -- Tiger Woods. The skinny 20-year-old stunned the seasoned Ulsterman with his raw power, blasting his ball 70 yards past him on occasions.

"I thought 'f***, what's going on here?' He was awesome," recalls Clarke. "He was pretty new to links golf but shot a brilliant 66 in the second round and won the amateur medal that year."

Clarke and the young Tiger forged a friendship which bonded even tighter when he blitzed Woods in the 36-hole final of the 2000 World Match Play at La Costa.

A telling moment came during the midday interval. As Woods grafted on his swing with coach Butch Harmon, Clarke sat on nearby steps smoking a cigar and chatting contentedly on his cell phone.

As he proved that day and last July, if Clarke finds peace on the golf course, he's a world-beater.

Victory at Royal St George's was achieved only because Clarke, with the help of golf psychologist Dr Bob Rotella, flicked a switch in his head on the eve of the championship.

After several days of self-doubt and recrimination stoked by a missed cut in Scotland, the 'Prince of Darkness', as Clarke once was dubbed by a member of his entourage, transformed into 'Daddy Cool'.

Clarke's luck changed with his demeanour. On the Sunday, for example, his scuffed approach to nine skipped over the yawning face of a bunker, where it almost certainly would have plugged, and ran onto the green.

Instead, his nearest rivals faltered. Phil Mickelson's Sunday surge came to a shuddering halt as he missed an 18-inch par putt at 11, while Dustin Johnson unbelievably went out of bounds from mid-fairway at the long 14th.

Dr Rotella used one word to describe Clarke's demeanour in Sandwich -- "unconscious". Yet, neither has any idea how he might return to that state.

Paradoxically, achieving his greatest ambition made Clarke even more intense than before, with catastrophic results.

"You'd think at age 43, having won Ryder Cups and World Golf Championships, I'd be more understanding yet my desire to do more has got in the way of me playing well," he explained. "I haven't been able to figure out a way of not trying too hard."

Making the halfway cut for the first time in 2012 at the Irish Open in his beloved Royal Portrush was a massive fillip for Clarke, so he travelled to Lytham on Saturday with renewed hope and confidence.

Ironically, Clarke currently is quoted at 125/1 to bring the Claret Jug back to Portrush next Sunday, precisely the same price, pre-tournament, as last year. If he finds the same peace of mind at Lytham, who knows what might happen?

Irish Independent

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