Dashing Darren never changed his ways

IT WAS a chilly, windy morning for the third round of the Irish Close Championship at Tramore in 1987.

Kerry All-Ireland footballer Mick Morris was one of the favourites for the title and I joined him playing the 11th. When I enquired as to how he was getting on, Morris replied with an almost incredulous expression: “I’m playing the golf of my life but I’m six down to this kid.”

And it was then that I laid eyes on Darren Clarke for the first time, 24 years ago. He was only 18 at the time, believe it or not he was as slim as a pencil, more than two inches over six feet and all the more conspicuous because of his carefully manicured shock of peroxide blond hair.

He duly beat Morris before losing at the semi-final stage 24 hours later to JP Fitzgerald (Rory McIlroy’s caddy).

It was easy to get to know Darren in those days. Not only was he strikingly handsome and unashamedly in love with life and with golf, but winning championships and celebrating accordingly seemed like an everyday experience.

As he departed his teens in 1989, he captured his first championship, the East of Ireland at Baltray, before 1990 became nothing short of a lap of honour as he walked off with the Irish Close, South, North and Spanish Championships.

By now he was a very hot property and left with a dilemma — should he wait for the 1991 Walker Cup before turning professional or go for it there and then?

He took the latter option, became the first client of Andrew “Chubby” Chandler’s International Sports Management and so began a relationship that was to see both men reach millionaire status — and then some.

Even as the thousands rolled in, Clarke didn’t change his ways. A liking for a pint or three remained as keen as ever and he wasn’t averse to the odd visit to the media centre to ensure he had one or two hacks happy to keep him company — only for a short while, of course!

Clarke captured his first professional title, the Alfred Dunhill Open, at St Andrews in 1993 and it seemed only a matter of time before even greater things transpired for the man from Dungannon.

I will never forget arriving at the landing area for the tee shots at the second fairway at Royal Troon in 1997 believing that he was actually leading the British Open ahead of Jesper Parnevik, having birdied the first after almost driving the green.

However, it quickly emerged he had shanked his two iron tee shot out of bounds and was on the way to a double bogey six. He would eventually finish tied for second behind American Justin Leonard. He again had his chance at Royal Lytham St Annes in 2001 but in bravely chasing David Duval went for broke at the 17th and ran up a double bogey six that ended his challenge.

He made the first of his five (four wins) Ryder Cup appearances at Valderrama in 1997 and achieved further esteem and respect in 2000 when he beat the then apparently invincible Tiger Woods in the final of the Accenture World Match Play Championship by 4&3.

Just as importantly to a man who had enjoyed a delightful childhood thanks to the efforts of his parents Godfrey and Hetty and sister Andrea in Dungannon where he had played a mean game of rugby at number eight for Royal School, his family life continued in idyllic fashion.

He married Heather Tosh in 1996 and they had two sons, Tyrone, now 13, and Conor, now 11.

Heather was a lovely girl and they kept a warm and welcoming house in Portrush before buying and developing a luxurious home on a large site near Cobham, Surrey so that Darren could be in close proximity to Heathrow Airport. Their future could hardly have looked brighter.

Sadly, Heather was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 and after a very brave battle, succumbed to the illness in August 2006.

Darren rejoiced when Heather enjoyed a good spell and found time to bring the boys to Anfield to support his beloved Liverpool FC. He was devastated by her passing but earned everyone’s admiration by the manner in which he handled the situation.

He has since been a diligent worker on behalf of Breast Cancer Awareness while his charitable leanings are also demonstrated by the special pro-am he organised in 1998 in aid of victims of the Omagh bombing atrocity.

Clarke deliberated long and hard before accepting Ian Woodsman’s ‘wild card’ Ryder Cup team offer three weeks after Heather’s death in the belief that it would have been her wish that he should play. He duly did so and won his three matches as emotions ran high and tearfully at the K Club in Co Kildare and all over the golfing world.

HE WON twice in 2008 and again this year in Majorca but the more recent years have seen Clarke concentrate on reorganising his personal life. He returned to Portrush to a magnificent home overlooking the famed Dunluce Links, enrolled Tyrone and Conor in Dalriada College and become engaged to Alison Campbell, a former Miss Northern Ireland and owner of a successful model agency.

They were set up on a blind date by Graeme McDowell with Clarke unaware Alison was very well-known in her own right: “I lived in London and had no idea. We met and talked before we went out for dinner and stuff — we got on like the proverbial house on fire.”

With all those personal matters in place, all that was left for Darren Clarke was to get his golf in order. And he achieved that in magnificent and life-changing fashion over the last four days in Kent.

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