Heart of a Lion: Clarke the Captain
As Darren Clarke prepares to lead Team Europe next week at Hazeltine National, RyderCup.com’s Will Pearson takes a closer look at a man already steeped in the history and folklore of the transatlantic clash…
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 first 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 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.
“The Ryder Cup has been a huge part of my life and my golfing career, for a lot of different reasons,” said Clarke. “None more so than The K Club, when I had a very emotional one. But 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.”
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 instil 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 48 year old is just as happy with a simple existence back home in his native Portrush or at his second house in the Bahamas, fly fishing, out on the boat, or just spending time with his sons Tyrone and Conor and wife Alison, who he married in 2012 after being set up by compatriot Graeme McDowell three years prior.
Still indubitably a good-time guy, there has been a renewed focus and an impressive drive to the man since his appointment in February 2015.
No stone has been left unturned in Clarke’s meticulous preparations for next week’s showpiece, as evidenced by his employment of statistical gurus ‘15th Club’, who have been delivering a raft of data to the captain throughout his term of office.
“Statistical analysis is getting bigger and bigger, particularly in golf, and I’m more than happy to embrace it,” Clarke reflected.
“But that’s not to say it will be making all the decisions. There’s something else called gut feeling and I won’t be frightened to use it just as much if not more.”
Widely backed by his peers for the captaincy following the Gleneagles triumph two years ago, you get the sense this tenure could yet prove a defining moment in Clarke’s glittering career.
But he won’t be going it alone – he’ll have five other pairs of eyes and ears to lean on.
After initially naming Ryder Cup stalwarts Thomas Bjørn, Padraig Harrington and Paul Lawrie as his first three vice captains back in May, Clarke added injury-struck Ian Poulter as his fourth assistant before completing his roster with the winning captain from 2002, Sam Torrance at the tail-end of July.
“These are guys I trust implicitly and I will value their opinions tremendously,” Clarke said of his vice captains. “They are good friends I’ve known for almost my entire career. They are guys who won’t be afraid to tell me, sometimes, what I don’t want to hear.”
Now, with just a matter of days remaining before the main event begins, Clarke, all soul and spirit, will be leading from the front in the face of what promises to be another fervent crowd at Hazeltine next week.
“To captain Europe in The Ryder Cup is the greatest honour our Tour can bestow on any of its members and I was humbled and honoured to accept,” he said. “There is nothing quite like this magnificent event for drama, tension and excitement.
“My dream had always been to earn the accolade when the match was being played in America. That was as much as I could have hoped for, but what I made it extra special was the knowledge I would come into direct opposition with one of my greatest golfing friends, Davis Love III. We will do everything we can to ensure the true spirit of The Ryder Cup is on show at Hazeltine.
“What’s more, as I follow in the steps of so many great European captains before me, 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 have together spearheaded Europe to six Ryder Cup victories for Europe since the turn of the century, Clarke will attempt to follow suit in Minnesota.
And if that courageous, heroic turn ten years ago in Ireland is anything to go 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 captain, the time is nigh.