Proud Darren Clarke still putting family first

Before Darren Clarke tapped in his final putt to win the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s, he paused for a quiet moment, smiled at the realisation that his 20-year quest was finally complete, and said a few words to himself.

“It was something along the lines of, ‘You’ve done it at last,” recalled Clarke, a smile nearly as big as that day creasing his face.

It took a bit longer for him to realise one of the many future perks that come with joining the exclusive club of Major champions: an invite to the PNC Father-Son Challenge at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Grande Lake Resort.

“I didn’t really think about it back at that stage, but we’ve been watching it on TV the last few years and waiting for our chance,” Darren said.

So much so that son Tyrone, 20, a sophomore majoring in investment management at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, wasn’t going to let exam week interfere with Team Clarke’s tournament debut in the 36-hole two-man team event. Tyrone went to great lengths to reschedule his exams in business and science classes for Monday and Tuesday and still has a couple more to take online.

Team Clarke joins a field headlined by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, and Nick Faldo. You must have hoisted one of the four Major championship trophies (or The Players Championship) to be eligible, and still the waiting list for the 20-team event is lengthy. The hardest task for tournament chairman Alistair Johnston of IMG, he says, is breaking the news to eligible teams that the field is full.

“I could easily have 40 teams, without a doubt,” Johnston said. “It’s the one tournament where nobody asks me about the prize money.”

This tournament isn’t really so much about a trophy, or in this case a belt in homage to the original prize at the Open Championship, as about fathers being fathers, grandpas in the gallery, brothers on the bag, wives taking a bow for raising the offspring of the greats while their husbands were chasing glory, and a celebration of family.

As a matter of fact, Darren’s wife, Alison, flew in for the festivities with Tyrone’s younger brother, Conor, who will serve as caddie for big brother and make it a true family affair. Tyrone has a classic golf swing and is a chip off the old block, albeit a taller and leaner version of his dad. His game benefitted from growing up a two-minute drive from Royal Portrush, where he is a plus-2 handicap.

When I look back, I had Tyrone first on a golf course when he was about two or three years of age and I’d go so far to say he’s inherited my golf genes,” Darren said.

“He’s taught me basically everything I know,” Tyrone said. “Now that I’m a bit older I’ve seen a few local coaches.”

Tyrone described his game as a work in progress. He plays for Lynn University, winner of the NCAA Division II national team championship last season, and said he’ll wait until he graduates to decide if he wants to turn pro and follow in his father’s footsteps.

“I don’t hit it a mile, but I’ve got a pretty good short game,” Tyrone said. “I learned all those little shots from dad.”

Tyrone missed out on competing in the NCAA’s, but recently got his championship ring and said he’s practising five-to-six days a week with the golf team. “If I wasn’t getting any better there would be a problem,” said Tyrone, noting he’s improved to playing as high as No. 3 for his squad in the fall season.

Darren’s game, by comparison, may be a bit rusty. He arrived in Florida on Saturday, and said the weather back home in Portrush hasn’t been conducive to practice. But he’s gearing up to practice for the next month at his home at the Abaco Club in the Bahamas in anticipation of chasing the PGA Tour Champions full-time next season. Darren played in six senior events after becoming eligible following his 50th birthday. His best finish was T-26 at the Boeing Championship.

“What I learned is it’s a sprint. It’s three rounds, not four and you’ve got to make birdies from the word ‘go,’ “ Darren said. “I think I’ll be fine if I sharpen up my short game this off-season.”

This week is about quality father-son time in a low-key affair, where the scramble format takes some of the pressure off both father and son. Team Clarke tees off at 2:12pm (7.12pm Irish time) with former Open champion Mark O’Meara and son Shaun.

I just want Tyrone to enjoy it, just have a bit of fun,” Darren said. “We’re not expecting to go out and play really well. Let’s just go out and see how we get on.

On Thursday, father and son surveyed the course in separate groups during a pro-am. When the pace of play slowed to a crawl and they met on the tee at the par-3 17th, Darren asked his son, “Is that you who bombed it on 16?”

Tyrone smiled and confirmed that, in fact, it was.

“You’ve got to get it inside me here,” said Darren, issuing a challenge.

Tyrone stuck his tee shot to around 10 feet from the hole, but that wasn’t good enough. When told that his father’s 7-iron was so close -- no more than two feet -- that Darren didn’t bother to read the putt, Tyrone said, “Really? He should’ve saved that one for when it counts.”

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