John Huggan: Weight is over for Darren Clarke

Slimmed-down Irishman may have been favourite for Ryder captaincy but he was still relieved to get the call

Slimmed-down Irishman may have been favourite for Ryder captaincy but he was still relieved to get the call

OVER the years, Ryder Cup players and captains have come in all shapes and sizes. Which is appropriate. Because so has Darren Clarke. The man who will lead the Old World into battle with the New at Hazeltine next year is a relatively svelte figure these days – nine inches have disappeared off his waist in the past 18 months – but the formerly burly Ulsterman was a much bigger physical presence during all of his five playing appearances in Europe’s colours.

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“I don’t know how much weight I’ve lost,” he says with a smile. “I don’t get on the scales. I measure by my waist. It is 33 now. It was 42 when I started.”

One thing Clarke did not lose recently was the vote that saw him follow fellow Irishman Paul McGinley into one of golf’s most hotly debated positions. Where some see Ryder Cup captains as no more than figureheads, others view the role as an integral component in winning the biennial contest. Then there are those who think that, while a bad captain can contribute hugely to losing causes – see Nick Faldo 2008, or Tom Watson 2014 – the efforts of even the greatest skipper cannot by themselves clinch the trophy.

Which one of those Clarke turns out to be remains to be seen. But the signs are good. This is a man who ticks all the Ryder Cup boxes, although the first ten days of his tenure have been decidedly low key. Ever since his captaincy was announced, the 46-year-old Portrush resident has been far from home, in South Africa.

“To be honest, being down here has turned out to be the best thing,” says Clarke, who is competing in the Johannesburg Open. “I’ve been able to keep a relatively low profile in the short term, which has given me time to think about all that is ahead of me over the next 18 months. Besides, I’m sure it will all kick off when I get back. I don’t know for sure, but I’d be surprised if the European Tour doesn’t have some things planned for me.”

For now, though, Clarke is able to reflect upon what was clearly a popular appointment. As well as enjoying the public support of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer – all likely to form part of the next European team – the former Open champion received a veritable mountain of congratulatory messages. “I thought most of them would arrive on the first day, but when I woke up the next morning there were 178 more texts,” he says. “My phone was going crazy.”

He wasn’t, though. His initial reaction was one of relief. “I knew there were two other worthy candidates in Miguel [Angel Jimenez] and Thomas [Bjorn],” he says. “So, even though I was favourite to be offered the position, I was taking nothing for granted. You never quite know. So I had a very long couple of hours waiting for the call to come through from Wentworth. [Ryder Cup director] Richard Hills was first to call me. Then I spoke to all five members of the committee [Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal, Paul McGinley, David Howell and George O’Grady] individually.”

One of the most pleasurable aspects of his new job is that Clarke’s opposite number in Minnesota will be his close friend, Davis Love.

“Davis and I have always had a great relationship,” he says. “We have played many practice rounds together. He is a really, really good man, someone I have a lot of time for. I’d go as far as saying he is one of my favourite people in golf.

“When I came off the 18th green at Royal St Georges in 2011 [when he won the Open], a few people were there to greet me and give me a hug. Davis was one of those, although he had finished a lot earlier. That sums him up. He was supposed to be on a charter flight to the Canadian Open that evening, but he waited for me anyway. That sums up the character of the man. You don’t forget gestures like that.”

The pair share some previous Ryder Cup history too.

“We had a great game at Oakland Hills back in 2004, which finished all square,” says Clarke. “Afterwards, we were all sitting around the 18th green waiting for the last matches to come up. The European team was on one side and the Americans were on the other. All except Davis and me. We wandered over to a spot somewhere in the middle and lit up a couple of cigars. That moment sums up the level of our friendship, I think. We had played hard and both of us wanted to win. But when it was over we were pals again.

“I wasn’t surprised by Davis’s appointment. I thought he did a great job at Medinah in 2012. He was a victim of a spectacular performance from the Europeans. But what gets forgotten is that he led his team into a winning position, only for everything to go Europe’s way on the Sunday. So to see him get a second chance was nice to see.”

Like everyone else in golf, Clarke has viewed the formation of America’s so-called Ryder Cup “Task Force” with something of a quizzical eye. He understands the motivation, though.

“If Europe had lost eight of the last ten matches then we would be looking at ways to improve our chances too,” he says. “It shows how much they care about the event, which is important. If they weren’t that bothered or not worried about their recent bad run, then they wouldn’t be doing what they are doing. I think the concept was fantastic and makes sense. Basically, they are looking at the problem and trying to come up with solutions.

“In a way it is a compliment to Europe. In any walk of life you look at who is doing well and try to copy at least some of what they do. That’s how sport works too. So I don’t blame them for looking at what has been so successful for us. But it isn’t just about team bonding and camaraderie – although both are clearly important. It should not be forgotten our recent sides have contained a lot of guys at or near the top of the world rankings. They can really play.”

Over the coming months Clarke will have many decisions to make, some relatively trivial, others more important. But one of his highest priorities will be identifying those he wishes to be his assistants. Having served twice in that role, he knows how influential good right-hand men can be.

“Every captain I have played or served under has never been slow to lean on his assistants,” he says. “I know I will be the same. I’ll be asking for their opinions on anything and everything, although the final decision will have to be mine. I can say that the guys I want alongside will all have Ryder Cup experience. I’ll be relying on them to give me all the information I need.

“I’m a firm believer that the leader of any organisation needs what I call a ‘bullshit’ guy, someone who is going to say ‘hang on a minute’ if he sees something he thinks is wrong. I will want to hear a range of opinions. There is no point in having everyone there if they are not going to speak up. ‘Yes-men’ are no good to me. Which is why I want guys who know what the Ryder Cup is all about, both on and off the course.”

Speaking of which, Clarke has twice played in USPGA Championships at Hazeltine – the site of Tony Jacklin’s 1970 US Open triumph and Scot Richie Ramsay’s 2006 victory in the US Amateur.

“From what I remember, it is reminiscent of Wentworth and has the sort of feel that will suit the Europeans,” he says. “It also has the potential to be a great match play course if they decide to move the tees around on a few holes. I’m thinking particularly of the 16th – the ‘signature’ hole where the water comes into play – and the short 17th. I can see a lot of exciting things happening on those holes.”

As for what we can expect from a Clarke captaincy, it will be “business as usual” with a few minor modifications reflecting Clarke’s out-going and gregarious personality. It can, for example, be taken as given that the European side will be kitted out in nothing but the best gear.

“I would have to be incredibly stupid to make drastic changes to what has gone before,” he says. “Why would I even think of such a thing? Which is not to say there won’t be a few twists on previous captaincies. I already have a few little ideas.”

Which will, no doubt, become big plans by September 2016.