John Huggan: Darren Clarke off course

No freakish putting style for Darren Clark, who won the Open as recently as 2011. Picture: Ian Rutherford
No freakish putting style for Darren Clark, who won the Open as recently as 2011. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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But, despite a drop in form, his principles and playing style make former Open champ a credit to the game

NEVER mind the competitive darkness of the last two and a half years. Never mind that he is currently ranked only the 272nd best player on the planet.

Never mind that his best placing on the European Tour in 2013 was tied for 12th at the Dunhill Links Championship. Or that he hasn’t recorded a top-ten finish anywhere since he won the biggest tournament in golf, the Open Championship, at Royal St Georges in 2011.

No, never mind any of that. Despite all of the above, watching Darren Clarke play golf remains one of the true pleasures in the professional game. In a world where science has sadly rapidly overtaken art, the 45-year-old Ulsterman remains a true virtuoso. Clarke plays golf in a way which so many observers of a certain vintage wish could be resurrected at the top end of a sport that has, in so many ways, regressed into one-dimensional, un-thinking automation. Sadly for those who want to see the ball manoeuvred with subtlety and grace, Clarke is one of a dying breed.

“I’d still like to see us all playing with persimmon woods and blade irons, but that battle has long been lost,” he says with a rueful smile. “In fact, I now know way too much about what I am doing for my own good. As I have aged, I have become far more technically aware of my own swing. That’s not a good thing. Like anyone going through a bad spell, I’ve been looking for answers in my technique. But that isn’t my problem. Hitting the ball has always been easy for me. I could do that almost from the first day I picked up a club. I’m a natural player if there is such a thing in golf.

“I have thought about belly putters and the like. But I just can’t do it. The only good thing I can say about those things is that I would need one three inches longer than I did three months ago. I’m a traditionalist and stuck in the past in a way. I look around the practice green every week and see all sorts of putting techniques and grips. Almost anything goes these days. But still I can’t do it. I’m a purist who would rather miss and look ‘good’ doing it, rather than make everything while looking like a contortionist. So, yes, I’ve tried them. But they just don’t sit well with me. It took me long enough to put a hybrid in my bag, never mind a long putter.”

So what exactly has been going on? Why has such a gifted individual struggled so mightily in a game that, for him, comes so naturally? As ever for someone in his mid-forties, a combination of poor putting and lack of confidence has been the root of Clarke’s decline in performance.

“I know I can still play,” he asserts. “But I do get frustrated when I don’t perform. I’m less patient at times and I was never that patient to begin with. I feel like I hit the ball as well as I have ever done, but I do miss too many makeable putts. That has been a problem for a while.

“When you are holing putts, the game is really quite easy. But when you are not – especially at my age – it is very hard. Sometimes I’m out there feeling like I have to hit a perfect shot and a perfect putt just to make a birdie. And, when that is the case, I can’t score as low as I would like. It is certainly nothing to do with my ability to hit the ball. Or produce a nice wee running chip. Nothing like that.

“But what I do now more than ever is ‘short side’ myself, missing the green on the side nearest the pin and leaving myself a really tough chip or pitch. Which, again, is due to a lack of patience. I go at flags I shouldn’t go at because I’m not scoring. I get too aggressive, which is a mental error. I’m not content to play the safe, sensible shot to 25 feet because I’m damn sure I’m not going to make a putt that length. So it is a bit of a vicious circle.”

Still, for all that, there is no sign of Clarke giving up the fight any time soon. Quite the contrary actually. Courtesy of his Open Championship victory, he has recently taken up membership of the PGA Tour, where he will play a large amount of his golf in 2014. After Qatar this week, he probably won’t be seen in “Europe” again until the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in late May. It’s a bold step, but one the five-time Ryder Cup player is looking forward to.

“I’m not worried about going back to the PGA Tour,” he claims.

“It used to be that there was a bit of a gap between the European Tour and the PGA Tour. But I don’t see that any more. There’s a much smaller difference between the two, especially at the top end, as recent results in the Ryder Cup have shown. I’m exempt through the end of 2016. So I have three years to make it work. And my response to the ‘why’ question is simple – ‘why not?’ I like playing golf in America. I like Americans. They have always been very kind to me.”

Speaking of our colonial cousins, Clarke’s involvement in this year’s Ryder Cup – he has twice served as an assistant captain – is likely to be minimal. Having turned down an opportunity to be part of the NBC network commentary team at Gleneagles (“not my thing”) he will likely take in the biennial battle at home in front of the television.

“I think the Ryder Cup will be very tight, as it has tended to be recently,” he continues. “There’s a long way to go, but it already looks like the European team might have a few new – and old – faces. Victor Dubuisson, Jamie Donaldson and Joost Luitten all have a good chance to make it. Plus, Thomas Bjorn and Henrik Stenson are almost there already.

“What is the same at this stage – as it always is – is that the European team looks a bit unsettled and the American team looks strong. But it doesn’t matter. At the end of September, the matches will be close. I would like to see another European victory but I can see the argument that it might not be the worst thing for the event if the Americans did win. They are due a break. In the last two cups the Europeans have had the good bounces at just the right moments. But, sooner or later, the Americans will get a wee bit of luck when they need it.”

That’s just what Clarke needs too, of course. And he’s confident it will come.

“My motivation is still to play good golf,” he says. “If I do that, I will win tournaments – I know how to do that. If I didn’t think I could do that I wouldn’t be playing golf.”

And playing it in a way every aspiring youngster should watch and learn from. Long may he continue.