YOU can still expect to see him pictured now and again with a pint of Guinness in his hand. After all, even the slimmed-down Darren Clarke likes a drop of the black stuff. “I need to be me,” insisted Europe’s Ryder Cup captain. “Most of the guys that play in the team know me as being me, so why would I change myself that much?”
Very true. He knows, however, that his new position comes with a responsibility. “I will enjoy myself, but I know that I can’t go out, drink too much and fall over,” added the Ulsterman as he met the media in a Heathrow hotel yesterday in his first official engagement since being appointed to lead Europe in next year’s Ryder Cup at Hazeltine.
As first dates go, it was promising. Clarke, for instance, didn’t try to hide the fact there’s a perception that, at this moment in time, he’s probably a bit too close to some of the players that could well need a captain’s pick for the match in Minnesota.
He and Lee Westwood, for instance, are bosom buddies, having shared the same management company since turning professional.
“I’m close to the players, maybe too close,” confessed Clarke, before going on to insist that he knows some tough decisions might lie ahead and won’t be afraid to make them, even at the expense of upsetting people.
“I’ll be very player friendly,” replied the 46-year-old to being asked by The Scotsman to identify his main strengths as a captain. “Don’t get me wrong, though. I won’t shirk my responsibilities of making tough decisions. I will not shirk at all.”
It was put to him specifically that one of those decisions could involve Westwood, now Europe’s most experienced campaigner in the inter-continental contest. “Everybody understands that, if you leave someone out, it is for the benefit of the team,” he added. “People look at how successful Europe have been of late. That goes a long way down to the captain managing the players and the players’ willingness, albeit disappointed, to accept the captain’s decision.”
In five playing appearances, Clarke experienced contrasting styles of captaincies. He described Sam Torrance and Ian Woosnam as being “hands-on” skippers. Bernhard Langer and Seve Ballesteros, meanwhile, handled team affairs more at an arm’s length. Mark James, his other captain, simply told Clarke to go out and play with Westwood.
“Different captains have different styles,” he said. “Some have their arms around the players, others are more distant. I’d like to think I’m somewhere in the middle ground. I’m still playing and very friendly with possibly members of the team. Yes, there has to be a little bit of separation, but I want the players to come and speak to me. I want to be their ear as well, not just the vice-captains. That’s more me. That’s the way I want to do things.”
What was also heartening to hear during a 35-minute sit-down with us golfing scribes was that the new skipper doesn’t plan to stray too much from a tried-and-tested formula. Having seen Europe come out on top over the Americans in eight of the last ten Ryder Cups, he’s happy to add some touches to the template rather than trying to come up with a new one.
Take the vice-captains, for example. Paul McGinley had five – one more than had become the norm – at Gleneagles last September. By the sounds of things, Clarke’s backroom team will be similar, both numerically and its make up. “If you look at vice captains, the system we’ve had with Europe is that it involves prospective Ryder Cup captains. It seems to be working and that may well be the case with my system,” he said. That probably points to both Thomas Bjorn and Miguel Angel Jimenez, the two men Clarke pipped for this captaincy, being involved. Padraig Harrington, too, though his recent return to winning ways on the PGA Tour hinted there may be life in that old dog yet on the playing front in a Ryder Cup. “Thankfully it’s a long way off before I have to name my vice captains,” declared Clarke.
In exactly 533 days time, he’ll be back at Heathrow to depart with his team, the likelihood being that it will again consist of nine automatic qualifiers and three wild cards. “It would be silly of me not to look more at experience for my picks for an away match as it’s more difficult than a home match,” he warned at the outset about the latter.
The race for qualification starts in September, with the likes of English duo Danny Willett and Andy Sullivan, as well as Frenchman Alexander Levy, having laid down early markers that they intend to get in the mix this time around.
“There’s a lot of good young guys coming through, but the core of the team at Gleneagles was young and I’m sure all of them will be pushing hard to make it again,” predicted Clarke. “A few of the old guard may miss out – it’s natural progression.
“If there are new players in the team, I’ll be able to help them because I’ve been there myself and know what it is like. It’s hard and I will always remember Sam Torrance saying to me once: ‘Playing in the Ryder Cup is like having your first child; until you have that you won’t understand what it’s all about’. I’m fortunate to be able to say that I’ve come down the stretch leading a major and managing to win it. But I’d still say that the pressure of a Ryder Cup is greater than that – that’s what I found.”
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