Heart of a Lion: Clarke the Captain
The memory, for Darren Clarke, is carved in granite; unforgettable, indestructible, indelible, everlasting.
“It seemed a long wait for the opening matches, but the day finally arrived and I had no idea what I was going to do or how I was going to cope. It really was a walk into the unknown, but it turned into one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life and I suspect the same goes for plenty of people who were there to witness it.”
In the autumn of 2006, at the K Club in County Kildare, Ireland, home favourite Clarke was stepping onto the first tee in the 36th edition of the revered biennial contest, just weeks after losing his wife Heather to cancer.
“I had never heard anything like the noise that greeted me on the first tee that Friday morning, and it would only be rivalled, but not beaten, five years later when I won The Open,” Clarke wrote in the Telegraph some years later. “When I came into general view, I was struck by a tsunami of noise.
“And then it was my time to hit. I had no idea if I was going to slice it, hook it, push it, pull it, top it or even hit it. It was a surreal moment, because we had moved from deafening noise to being able to hear the flap of a butterfly’s wings.
“Heaven only knows how, but I striped it straight down the middle more than 300 yards. There could never be a harder shot or hole for me to play.
“I still had 123 yards to the pin and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. My mind was spinning with thoughts. Don’t hit it fat, don’t thin it and don’t shank it. I hit a wedge to 15 feet.
“This time I knew exactly what was going to happen. I just knew I would hole the putt. I could close my eyes, look at the crowd, do absolutely anything, but one thing was for sure: the ball was going to drop. It’s going in. It did.”
Picked by 2006 captain Ian Woosnam as a wild-card, Clarke remarkably delivered three points from as many ties for Europe on Irish soil, joining forces with Lee Westwood to defeat Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco before the same fate befell Tiger Woods and Jim Fuyrk in the fourballs. He would also go on to beat Zach Johnson 3 and 2 in the singles.
Woosnam hoisting a tearful Clarke’s hand aloft on the 16th green on the Sunday at the K Club remains one of the defining moments of an overridingly emotional contest.
On the banks of the River Liffy, not far from Dublin, the 2006 instalment was to prove the fifth and last Ryder Cup appearance for Clarke as a player, having won an impressive 11½ points from 20 matches when sporting European blue.
The Northern Irishman’s partnership with stablemate and long-time friend Westwood proved enduring throughout, with only the legendary duo of Seve Ballesteros and José Maria Olazábal having won more matches together (11 to Clarke and Westwood’s six).
Four years after the K Club, however, Clarke would return to The Ryder Cup fold as a vice captain under Colin Montgomerie at Celtic Manor, as Europe beat the United States by 14½-13½, while he also gained further experience as part of the backroom team under Olazábal during the Miracle of Medinah in 2012.
Seven times involved in the inimitable match play contest, six times a victor, Clarke is to the point, straightforward, and a winner through and through.
A man’s man, known for his sarcastic wit and iron grit, Clarke has long retained the ability to engage and entertain, to at once provoke passion and instill respect, to inspire to the point of being fierce.
Equally comfortable with a pint of Guinness or a first-rate glass of claret, often accompanied by a Cuban cigar, Clarke has always enjoyed the finer things in life.
Conversely, the 46 year old is just as happy with his simple existence back at home in Portrush, fly fishing or spending time with his sons Tyrone and Conor.
Widely backed by many of the team who triumphed at Gleneagles in the build-up to Wednesday’s decision, you get the sense that Clarke’s time is now. Still indubitably a good-time guy, there is a renewed focus – both physical and mental – in recent times.
One year after capturing a career-best personal triumph with a maiden Major victory at The Open Championship at Royal St Georges, Clarke married Alison Campbell in 2012 after being set up by compatriot Graeme McDowell three years prior, while a strict diet and fitness regime saw him lose four stone in a matter of months last year.
Now, to go with his big personality, Clarke has big arms and an even bigger heart with which to lead from the front at Hazeltine in little more than 19 months’ time.
“It's a huge honour and a huge privilege to follow in the steps of so many great European captains and I just hope I can do as good a job as they have all done in the past,” said Clarke shortly after hearing he had been appointed captain by a panel led by European Tour Chief Executive George O’Grady and completed by Tournament Committee member David Howell alongside former skippers Montgomerie, Olazábal and Paul McGinley.
“The Ryder Cup has been a huge part of my life and my golfing career, for a lot of different reasons. None more so than The K Club, when I had a very emotional one. But now to be captain of the European team is a huge honour that ranks up there with anything I've achieved in the professional game. It's right up at the very top.
“I'm very proud and I'm very humbled to be chosen to as Ryder Cup Captain, and I'll endeavour to do the best I possibly can for the benefit of the European team.”
Now bestowed the honour of succeeding Sam Torrance, Bernhard Langer, Montgomerie, Olazábal and McGinley, who together have spearheaded Europe to six Ryder Cup victories since the turn of the century, Clarke will attempt to follow suit in Minnesota come September 2016.
And if that courageous, heroic turn nine years ago in Ireland is anything to by, one thing you can be certain about with Clarke – the warrior, Heart of a Lion – is that he will not be cowed by the job at hand, nor will he take but one step backwards.
For Darren Clarke, Europe’s new captain, the next chapter begins now.