Darren Clarke knows his way around a spotlight.
Europe’s Ryder Cup captain has won just one major, but like so many of his 21 other wins in some far-flung places, Clarke made sure it was memorable.
Five years ago, playing in his 20th British Open at age 42, the burly Northern Irishman held off Americans Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson down the stretch at Royal St. Georges, then topped it with one of the more gracious tributes the old golf ground ever hosted.
“In terms of what’s going through my heart, there’s obviously somebody who is watching from up above there, and I know she’d be very proud of me,” Clarke said, honoring his first wife, Heather, who’d succumbed to cancer five years earlier. “But I think she’d be more proud of my two boys and them at home watching more than anything else. It’s been a long journey to get here.”
Few men are better prepared to give an impromptu locker-room speech that would make the hair on the arms of an entire team stand on end. Or better at throwing a locker-room party. Both skills will come in handy with an inexperienced European squad trying to make it four in a row against the Americans next weekend at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota.
It won’t hurt, either, that Clarke could grab his clubs at a moment’s notice and play very capably alongside them still. Or that he did just that on five straight Ryder Cup teams between 1997-2006, going 10-7-3 and winning four times (and twice more as a non-playing vice-captain in 2010 and 2014). Or that he’s a world-class bartender, tarpon fisherman and Liverpool FC supporter in his spare time.
But all those things combined only begin to explain why every member of the team will play his heart out for Clarke.
Because they’re all old enough — including the six rookies — to remember how he did the same for Europe in 2006, arriving as a wild-card pick barely six weeks after losing his wife and delivering three points in three matches. And they can’t help but admire how he’s handled every big moment, before and since, with the same warmth and candor.
Rory McIlroy still remembers first time they met. “Larger than life” is how he described it.
McIlroy was celebrating his 10th birthday with a round of golf at Royal Portrush, a gift from his father. Clarke, who is 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, was there practicing. After years of modest success on the European Tour, his popularity was soaring after taking down Tiger Woods nearing his prime, 4 and 3, in the final of the WGC-Matchplay Championship. Clarke took some time with the kid.
Fast-forward to three weeks ago, when McIlroy — now 27 and a three-time major winner — was asked whether Clarke still had that charisma.
“I think so. As a 10-year-old, he’s a big man and you’re in awe of him a little bit, especially being in Northern Ireland. And he’d just beaten Tiger,” McIlroy recalled.
A moment later, he revealed what impressed him about Clarke now that he was a seasoned pro himself.
“The one thing about Darren that is misunderstood … he’s obviously a happy-go-lucky sort of guy, but he practices really hard. He’s one of the hardest practicers I’ve ever come across. He’ll do his due diligence,” McIlroy said. “He’ll make sure he does everything he can to help us.”
Clarke admits he’s spent a few sleepless nights lately doing just that, getting up at all hours of the morning to type notes on his phone. His plan is to mix and match the tactics and styles of all the captains he played for and worked alongside — they range from flamboyant Seve Ballesteros to dour Mark James — and hope he gets the timing right. But he feels like he’s already identified the hardest part — knowing when to get out of the way — and made some progress that way.
“The times I’ve been a vice-captain I would go down and watch some of our players and see them hit a draw into a back right flag and say, ‘What are you doing that for?'” Clarke said in a recent interview with GOLF.com. “I wanted to go and grab the club and say, ‘No, it’s a little soft cut.’ …
“That was certainly true at Celtic Manor (in 2010). At Medinah (in 2012) I was somewhat calmer about everything. And I’m sure as captain, yes, I will be nervous as soon as we all go off.
“But it will be fine,” he added. “Those guys are there for a reason. That’s why they are playing.”