Sunday, August 22, 2010

Darren Clarke resettles in Northern Ireland

Darren Clarke's indulgence in cigars, Ferraris and industrial quantities of Guinness hints at a man who does not relish the thought of slowing down.
But the hedonist-in-chief of European golf is abandoning his life in London for the quainter pleasures of his beloved Portrush, and already he finds that the settled life seems to suit him.
The Ryder Cup vice-captaincy is suffusing Clarke with a rosy glow this summer. Already he is discharging his duties with the utmost seriousness, criticising even a close ally such as Padraig Harrington for not playing the final qualifying event, the Johnnie Walker Championship, at Gleneagles next week.
Clarke, who made such a memorable contribution to Europe's triumph at the K Club in 2006 – and all on the strength of a wild-card selection – knows what he would do: "For me, if I didn't think I'd done enough for a pick, I'd definitely play."
A dedication to a stout-based diet puts some colour in his cheeks, too. But above all else, Clarke is renewed by his restoration to the land where he has always felt most valued. He tells how back home in Northern Ireland, passers-by shake him by the hand and say, 'Good luck, Darren' – a ritual unthinkable in his former habitat of Surrey stockbroker land. "It's just different here, more friendly," admits a man who has tended to thrive on being the centre of attention.
"I'd lived in and around London for about 10 years, and it had served its purpose," Clarke says. "I want my kids to grow up here, and for them to be as proud about coming from Northern Ireland as I am."
His voice betrays an optimism and vigour almost forgotten in the four dark years since he lost his wife, Heather, to breast cancer. Today, he could scarcely be less introspective as he works with children out on the range at his golf academy in Greenmount, County Antrim.
He is reminded of the mentoring role he used to assume for Rory McIlroy, the province's greatest golfing prodigy. McIlroy joined the Darren Clarke Foundation aged 12, whereupon Clarke promptly handed the young man his phone number. Ever since the pair have enjoyed an endearingly close teacher-student relationship, with Clarke taking every chance to play practice rounds with his protégé and to smooth the ascent to the top of the professional game.
"I wasn't a bit surprised," Clarke insists, when asked about McIlroy's remarkable season, which continued with a third-place finish in the US PGA at Whistling Straits last weekend. Indeed, his advice on how the 21 year-old can translate such rich form into a first major is best encapsulated by a story of their exchange at this year's Irish Open.
As they stood on the 18th green after the second round at Killarney, he simply walked over to his playing partner and said: "Stay patient, you muppet." When Clarke finds time to analyse his career, he may find he derives deeper satisfaction from the men he has inspired than the trophies he has won.
Already he, McIlroy and US Open champion Graeme McDowell form an Ulster equivalent of The Three Degrees: symbols of improbable sporting success in a country of just 1.6 million people. As for McDowell, he is the reason why Clarke is heading back to Northern Ireland in loved-up mood.
'G-Mac' introduced him last year to Alison Campbell, a former Miss Northern Ireland, and Clarke conveys the attitude of one who has found his match.
Most importantly in his estimation, Ms Campbell, who has been assisting with the move back to Portrush's picture-perfect coastline, has apparently grown close to his two boys. Tyrone, 11, and Conor, eight, who lost their mother in 2006, and Clarke has consistently made them his priority.
"I feel they should have a sense of belonging and somewhere to call home, just as I did," he explains. "Tyrone is about to start senior school, and since the structure of the education system is totally different from England, this was the right time to do it.
"He is going into first form at Dalriada. It was always my intention to come back some day. The advantage is that I can see them both more regularly and spend more time with them. It wasn't so easy when they were at boarding school, while I was playing tournaments in every continent. Here they can be part of a community – now they just need to lose their English accents."
Only Clarke knows how inextricably the happiness in his personal life and the revival of his game are linked, but his recent results make the point eloquently enough. "I first started to notice the change six weeks ago, when I played J P McManus's charity event in Limerick," he says. "I won there, and from nowhere I had the confidence to play better in the important tournaments. I did really well at Loch Lomond, then qualified for the Open.
"From tee to green, I've been absolutely delighted with how I'm playing. It was just a pity I couldn't put it together at Whistling Straits, where my putter was stone-cold."
Clarke's wobbly display by Lake Michigan, where he finished in a tie for 48th, at least helped him to conclude that he would not play in this year's Ryder Cup. He could barely contain his excitement when the US PGA invited him to appear, but the prosaic reality of his performance meant he would have needed to win the Czech Open and next week's Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, merely to stand a chance of climbing into the top nine from his position in 21st place.
His withdrawal from the event in Ostrava removed any possibility that he would be teeing it up alongside McIlroy and loyal friend Lee Westwood at Celtic Manor in October, but it is a disappointment he can bear. When Colin Montgomerie, during the Open at St Andrews, knocked on the door of his room at the Old Course Hotel to offer him a role as one of Europe's three vice-captains, Clarke needed, as he recalls, just "two seconds" to accept.
Montgomerie, in turn, replied that he wanted Clarke in south Wales "one way or another." As the memories return of Clarke's Ryder Cup in 2006, when he played through the searing emotions of losing Heather to galvanise Europe to victory, it is hard to fault Montgomerie's logic. As a more carefree figure among the backroom staff, Clarke threatens to be even more of a force, with his children as his inspiration and Guinness as his fuel.
Darren Clarke was speaking at Greenmount, one of his golf academies that run across Northern Ireland, in partnership with The Co-Operative Food. For more information, visit



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