Unfinished business

TEN years after deciding that a base near London and Heathrow Airport was best suited to his particular needs, Darren Clarke is on the cusp of returning home.

He and his sons Tyrone and Conor shortly move into a new home in Portrush overlooking the famous links.

It’s been something of a roller coaster ride for Clarke, at times hugely successful on the golf course but everything overshadowed by the tragedy of losing his wife, Heather, this time four years ago to breast cancer. Emotions ran particularly high some eight weeks after her passing when Clarke responded to Heather’s insistence that he should be part of the European Ryder Cup team at The K Club. He duly went out and played a key role in a famous victory.

It was his fifth successive Ryder Cup and he was on the winning side four times making his appointment last week as vice-captain, along with Paul McGinley and Thomas Bjorn to assist Colin Montgomerie at Celtic Manor in October, all the more inevitable.

But he still harbours ambitions of accumulating the necessary points to play and his first opportunity to build towards that comes this week in the 3 Irish Open at Killarney. He feels it could hardly be better timed.

He has competed in the championship since his amateur days back in 1998 right up to the present without the desired result. Disappointing as that may be, he admits that he gets a special buzz whenever he has the opportunity to tee it up in Ireland.

“You ask any of these guys and they’ll go majors, world championship events, Sawgrass, Dubai World Championships but for me The K Club will always have special memories between winning the European Open there and the Ryder Cup because they were in Ireland.

“The Ryder Cup was obviously a very emotional week and I don’t think in terms of my career, anything that happens in the future will ever surpass the 16th green at The K Club that Sunday afternoon. No matter what, I don’t think I’ll ever feel the same as I did then. I had bottled it all up and I cried my eyes out... At the end of the day I was performing for my friends, my team mates, as well as for myself and Heather.

“I don’t think anything will ever surpass that no matter what I do. The first tee, the first morning was pretty tough and then I flushed my drive, flushed my second, sank the putt, birdie 3, Europe one up.

“The Irish Open is our national Open and every player wants to win that. I’ve been close in the past and even though I’ve won the European Open at home at The K Club, the Irish Open is one that I would dearly love to win.”

His best chance came at Carton House in 2006 when he led the weather-delayed tournament going into the final few holes on Monday morning only for a whole series of misfortunes to befall him, some of his own creation and one linked to the man’s outstanding sense of sportsmanship that saw him caught on the post by his friend and now fellow Ryder Cup vice captain Thomas Bjorn.

“I don’t really look back at Carton House with any regret, although yes, I obviously wanted to win,” he says. “I’ve had that thing brought up to me quite a few times about how I chipped the ball out from the rough and what have you. But if I was here every day for the rest of my life to play golf, I would do exactly the same thing.

“You’ve got to go through adversity to get to the top and that was one of the things I had an opportunity to take advantage of, something perfectly within the rules but it was also something that didn’t sit right with me. I decided, well, if I win the tournament, I win, if I don’t, I don’t. I had lots of chances to win after that and didn’t do it. Taking six at the last was particularly disappointing.”

CLARKE was two shots ahead at the time play was interrupted but his tee shot at the 10th was in jungle country. On his return the following morning, there was the ball, smiling up at him from a perfect lie. He was informed by the referee that he could play from this much more favourable position, that it was a rub of the green and that he was entitled to play the ball as it lay. “In all conscience, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing it so I hit the pitch shot that I would have played the previous night.”

The action may have cost him a bogey five but his peers were so impressed with this level of sportsmanship that it later gained Clarke the accolade of the “RBS Shot of the Month for May”.

Four months later, Clarke was back in Co Kildare, at The K Club for arguably the biggest sporting event ever to be held in this country, the Ryder Cup.

So, now, at the age of 41, Darren Clarke has made his way back to Kerry hopeful of achieving one of his career dreams and enthused by some performances and solid putting displays in the last three weeks or so. He has happy memories of the Killeen Course having played it many times with his close friend Eoghan O’Connell, himself, of course, a Killarney member, when they knocked around together as youngsters. He also contested the 1991 and 1992 Irish Opens, finishing the first year with an encouraging 68 to tie for 30th, although in ‘92 he missed the cut by one after rounds of 75 and 73.

IN the intervening time, there have been many great moments including two World Championships with the most recent of his 12 European Tour successes coming in the 2008 Asian and Dutch Opens. He insists he wouldn’t be plugging away unless he believed further success was looming. He proved the point with his win in the JP McManus Pro-Am in Adare and second place a few days later in the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond.

He battled his way through the storm on the Friday evening of the Open to stand among the top 20, only to be undone on the Saturday by a triple bogey seven at the 17th. Displaying a level of patience and resilience that haven’t always been among his strong points, he pieced together a decent final round to prove his game was in reasonable shape as he headed for another shot at his national championship. And where better to do it than amidst the fells and lakes of Killarney this week.

Clarke is a well-respected golf course architect and has strong views the way European Tour layouts are set up. He isn’t impressed at reducing the par of Killeen from 72 to 71 by clipping a few years off the 11th to turn it from a five into a four.

“You have the paying public coming in to watch us play and they want to see us making birdies and eagles, not pars and bogeys. They want to see us doing stuff that they can’t do.

“So what if the average at a par five is doing to be 4.2 or 4.5. Let it be a par 5, let there be more red numbers. Whoever shoots the lowest at the end of the week is going to win. Let the public see putts for eagles, birdies. It lends more excitement. In the current climate, we’re trying to attract more people to the game.

“What do you want to watch? Birdies or eagles or guys struggling for pars. Let the guys shoot low and show how good we are. That’s my opinion. If I was going to a tournament, I’d prefer to see scores 20 under rather than 12 under. True, there is a fine line between making it a putting competition and a good tournament event but if your course is a good one, you can still have that.”

You suspect that if Darren Clarke was coming down the stretch on Sunday afternoon with the 3 Irish Open within his grasp, there would be some excitement around Killarney’s Killeen Course.

Could it be that his time has come at last?

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