EVEN now, close to a decade on, it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. The roar that greeted Darren Clarke as he appeared on the first tee at The K Club was deafening; the emotion raw as he played in the 2006 Ryder Cup on home soil just six weeks after his wife, Heather, had died from cancer.
That Clarke somehow got his opening shot off the tee in such circumstances was remarkable; his feat in picking up three points from three as Europe matched their record victory in the biennial bunfight simply astonishing.
If ever passion for the event was evident, it was surely that occasion. The experience helped him become an Open champion seven years later. Now he’s hoping it can also turn him into a winning Ryder Cup captain at Hazeltine next year.
“I think what I went through there was perfect preparation for anything I would ever face in the game of golf afterwards,” confessed Clarke after getting the nod ahead of Miguel Angel Jimenez and Thomas Bjorn for the match in Minnesota.
“Obviously that’s been one of my most emotional experiences in the game, and just with it being The Ryder Cup, as well, everything that goes along with it, it was a very special week for me. Emotion is part and parcel of the Ryder Cup. We’ve seen that before; we’ve seen that from Seve [Ballesteros] and José Maria [Olazabal] when they were partners. It’s a massive part of it. I think the European team has been obviously very successful in capturing that emotion and using it for their benefit.”
As Ian Woosnam’s side celebrated their victory in Ireland, Clarke famously downed a pint of Guinness in one go, to the delight of the home fans. “An emotional end of the week sort of thing,” he said, recalling that moment.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS
A bit like predecessor Paul McGinley, Clarke has only really savoured sweet moments in the Ryder Cup. Four of his five appearances as a player were on winning teams; two stints as an assistant captain delivered the same result.
It’s an event close to his heart, making it a difficult question for him to answer when Clarke was asked how becoming the first Northern Irishman to secure the captaincy compared to winning the Open Championship as he did at Royal St George’s in 2011.
“Yeah, that’s a good question,” admitted the 46-year-old. “Winning The Open was obviously a very personal thing. Being afforded the honour of being captain of the Ryder Cup is a team thing. I’m only there to try and help the players. But, in saying that, it’s a huge honour and one that I am very excited about. The Ryder Cup has been so special to me for so long so to be given this opportunity is very, very special to me and means a great deal. I think I’m very privileged to join the list of guys that have gone before me.”
Clarke received the good news in South Africa, where he is being partnered by his oldest son, Tyrone, in the Dimension Data Pro-Am, a Sunshine Tour event, starting today at Fancourt. “I played 18 holes quickly with Tyrone this morning and was resting a little bit beside Alison and Tyrone waiting for the news – it was a very long couple of hours,” he said.
“Was I expecting it? No, I wasn’t, because I didn’t know what way the committee was going to vote. Was I hoping it was going to me? Then yes, obviously. And I was delighted when the call came through and they asked me to be Ryder Cup captain.”
He had received support from world No 1 Rory McIlroy, who was also instrumental in McGinley’s appointment. Like him, it was appreciated by the new captain along with backing from other members of last September’s winning side at Gleneagles.
“I appreciated it an awful lot that those guys were supporting me and have the trust in me to be their captain,” admitted Clarke. “You know, without their help, would I be sitting here talking to you now? I don’t know, maybe yes, maybe no. But the fact that they did come out and publicly support me means an awful lot to me. Hopefully I’ll be able to repay them in any small way that I can at Hazeltine.”
The Europeans will head there with a chance to win the encounter for the fourth match in a row. His opposite number is likely to be Davis Love III, who tasted defeat at Medinah as Europe equalled the record last-day fightback in 2012 but is set to be re-appointed next week. He’ll be out to prove a point and so, too, will the home players after losing eight of the last ten encounters. “I think I would be foolish not to realise that,” said Clarke when asked if the Americans are a wounded animal in the event at present. “The run that Europe have been on is exceptional. We are going for our fourth straight win. That hasn’t been done before. But with the players that we have at our disposal, I think it’s definitely an achievable feat. But it will be difficult going to America as the home crowd always makes the difference. Medinah was very special, the way the guys performed on Sunday, doing what they did, coming back from where they did.”
There’s no getting away from the fact that McGinley is a hard act to follow. The Dubliner went about the job in a way that could well be difficult to match in terms of ticking so many boxes. It’s a task that Clarke is up to, though, and his appointment has been met with wide acclaim.
“As you can imagine, my phone has been very busy,” he reported. “There’s been lots of messages coming in and there’s been quite a few of them that are very special to me. It would be stupid of me to reveal any of those but there’s been a lot of ones that have been very, very nice and I have been very pleased and touched to receive.”