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Darren has a lot on his mind with the Ryder Cup coming up, but he knows I'll be there for him... as his wife and best friend

Exclusive: Alison Clarke tells Claire McNeilly about what golf WAGs get up to, her views on underage models... and why Rory McIlroy wasn't at her wedding

Published 17/09/2016

Alison and Darren Clarke
Alison and Darren Clarke
Alison Clarke chats to Belfast Telegraph journalist Claire McNeilly
Alison and Darren on their wedding day, joined by golfer Graeme McDowell and his wife Kristin
Alison (third from left) in her role as organiser of Miss NI
Alison Clarke pictured at the Royal County Down Golf Course
Darren and Alison with his teenage sons Tyrone and Conor
Alison in her beauty queen days
Darren with fellow golfers Rory McIlroy and McDowell

It's the question everyone was asking at the time: why was Rory not at Darren's wedding in the Bahamas?

The pair are good friends, after all - and that other member of Northern Ireland golf's 'holy trinity', Graeme McDowell, was there.

Alison Clarke moved quickly to unravel a four-year-old mystery.

"Rory McIlroy wasn't invited," said the model agency boss.

"It was only our immediate family and it was a secret until the last minute.

"G-Mac was there because he introduced us, and because he and his partner Kristin happened to be in the Bahamas at that time."

It was a reply typical of the no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point Alison.

Mrs Clarke - formerly Campbell, nee Smyth - isn't one for flannel or suffering fools. It's an approach that has helped her maintain a successful business for nearly three decades.

So tread carefully if you're thinking of referring to this proud, independent and (mostly) cool and unflappable woman as merely the wife of a well-known golfer.

That aspect of her life can't be ignored, however, because in less than a fortnight the Ryder Cup - one of the biggest sporting events in the world - gets under way at Hazeltine National Club in Minnesota.

And Darren Clarke just happens to be captain of the European team, so there's no doubt about which so-called golf WAG will garner the most attention.

As a former beauty queen, though, Alison is unlikely to be fazed by it.

"I think Darren is the one who'll be under pressure, not me," said the 1982 Miss Northern Ireland, as the battle for golf's most prestigious trophy looms.

She added: "I'll just be there supporting him as best I can.

"I just make the same effort as I do everywhere I go.

"I'll not be doing anything any different... same make-up, same hair. And I'll not be running to the hairdressers before I go onto the course..."

So what does a Ryder Cup wife actually do?

"We're just really there to add support," she said.

"Darren is very much shoulder to shoulder and the wives are very much a part of his backroom team.

"It's just having your best friend with you and having somebody who knows you inside out being there for you."

There's little doubt that Alison's husband will cite being named Ryder Cup captain, and the epic 2011 Open Championship victory, as his two greatest moments in golf so far.

The best may be yet to come, but the moment Darren learned that he'd landed this dream job brings back pleasant memories.

"Tyrone (one of his two sons) and I were both with him in South Africa when he heard," recalled Alison.

"We were at a tournament where Tyrone was playing as his dad's partner. Darren was in the running for the job and was waiting on a phone call.

"It's like waiting on an exam result; you just don't know. But when it was confirmed, he was so happy."

After the euphoria, however, came the thankless task of choosing a team that could keep the Ryder Cup out of American hands yet again; Europe have won six of the last seven tournaments.

And there's little doubt about the biggest decision of all: whether or not to include the out-of-form G-Mac... friend, compatriot and hero of previous Ryder Cup victories.

Darren could have picked the Portrush native as a wild card, but the Dungannon man went with his head over his heart, leaving a good pal, to use his own term, "gutted".

"Darren and Graeme are great friends and he'd have loved to have picked him, but Graeme said himself that he hadn't made the mark," said Alison, who added that she doesn't see much of McDowell, or indeed McIlroy, these days.

"I saw them both at the Irish Open (at the K Club, Co Kildare, in May). G-Mac's lovely, so's Rory.

"I don't really see them that much, though. I'll spend time with Rory at the Ryder Cup. Unfortunately G-Mac and Kristin (now his wife and mother of his two young children) won't be there."

Alison, who will fly out with Darren to the States on Monday, September 26, is already acquainted with her opposite number in the American team, Robin Love - wife of US captain Davis Love III. "Robin is great; I've met her on several occasions," said the Strabane native.

"We go to an event with the American wives on the Tuesday, and on the Wednesday night we have the welcome dinner. Thursday is the opening ceremony. I don't have to make any speeches..."

Alison conceded that the attention has gone up several notches since Darren was named captain in February of last year, but the couple have tried to keep their family life as normal as possible.

"He's away quite a lot at meetings and interviews and he doesn't sleep that much, which wakes me up too," she explained.

"There has been a lot on his mind. But now that he's finally got the team together it's easier."

The Portrush-based family comprises Tyrone (18) and Conor (15), Darren's sons with first wife Heather, who lost her courageous battle with breast cancer just over 10 years ago.

Alison has two grown-up sons - Stuart (29), who works for Invest NI in San Francisco, and Philip (24), an area manager with Lidl in London - from her previous marriage to Arthur Campbell.

There are also two huge Irish wolfhounds, Cain and Thor.

"The boys are all into the same type of thing - sport, computer games, the same TV programmes and films," said Alison. "They all get on well. All four will be together at the Ryder Cup, which is nice. Conor turns 16 the day the tournament starts."

She added: "I treat Tyrone and Conor as if they're my own, whether that's a good thing or a bad thing in their eyes..."

With the Ryder Cup almost upon us, globetrotter Darren is spending a lot more time at home.

"He's here for a couple of weeks before the tournament begins," revealed Alison.

"It's always a bonus when he's home because he's a very good husband and he loves cooking... and he makes breakfast in bed on Saturday mornings."

She may have four sons now, but Alison says she doesn't regret not having a daughter, for one specific reason. "I think having a girl probably would have been difficult for me," she said. "Dear knows what she would've been like. It's very much fantasy, but people would probably have compared a daughter to me and she may have had a lot to live up to."

A youthful Alison was working in a branch of Ulster Bank when she was crowned Miss Northern Ireland.

"After I won the competition they moved me into the public relations department," she explained.

"Before that I wasn't even allowed near the customers, I was in the back sorting cheques into alphabetical order, typing up ledgers. I really wasn't going to get any further in the bank without doing exams. I had started organising Miss NI in 1987 and realised that there was a niche in the market for a modelling agency.

"I left the bank on October 31, 1990, and I set up ACA Models on November 1 - the very next day."

It all sounds so smooth and effortless, but Alison admitted she was terrified of going into the "big bad world of self-employment".

"I had just left a good job and a good salary with a pension," she said.

"I didn't borrow any money, either; working in a bank taught me a lot about cash flow so I only ever spent what I had. I had it all planned out.

"I had a proven record in that I'd been doing Miss NI for a few years and there was a business there.

"In many ways, I did what Darren did - turn a hobby into a business. It's ideal, when it works out."

And, of course, the modelling business continues to thrive, irrespective of anything going on in the world of golf.

"I enjoy my work, always have done," said Alison.

"I had my own business from long before I met Darren and I couldn't ever imagine not doing it.

"If your husband is a golfer and you're travelling with him it's maybe easier not to have a job, but I don't have that problem. I love my independence."

Despite marrying a golf superstar, Alison says she has never even considered giving up work to follow her multi-millionaire husband around the globe.

"I wouldn't know how to fill my day," she said.

"I think it might be nice, though - for a month."

Going from 'Campbell' to 'Clarke' wasn't an issue when the couple exchanged vows on that sunny Bahamian day back in April 2012, following a year-long engagement (they maintain a holiday home in the Bahamas).

She didn't even have to change the 'ACA' title of her business.

"Yes, that 'C' certainly helped," she joked.

"It wasn't a difficult decision; Darren wanted me to have his name. I don't think people are finding it too difficult getting used to me being called Clarke."

Alison believes that, in her job, it's important to lead from the front.

"I'm not under pressure to do it, but that's what I do," she said.

"Image is important in my industry and I expect my staff and people to follow suit."

And Alison remains in demand as a model. "Yes, I'm being booked more and more over the last while as I get bigger and older," she said.

"I did shows in Sprucefield and Victoria Square recently. I do think there's a niche in the market for my age group."

But she doesn't believe there's one for girls of 13... such as Hillsborough teenager Darcy Brittain-Dissont, who caused a real stir when she strode the catwalk at Belfast Fashionweek last year.

"When they're still at school they're too young... 13 is too young," commented Alison.

"They're not mature enough. Modelling is a job, and 13 and 14-year-olds should be in school. Any face can be made to look older, but there are plenty of faces that are 17 or 18 without having to use 13 and 14-year-olds.

"Having said that, the number of calls and emails we get from parents of children of that young age is remarkable."

Image may be extremely important, but Alison insists she hasn't tried to alter her 47-year-old husband's.

"He knows what he has to do," she said.

"I don't have much influence (over what he eats)... unless I'm cooking.

"We go out for dinner occasionally but there is nothing nicer than just sitting in and not having to go out, especially now when everyone wants to talk to Darren, or get an autograph or a selfie.

"I guess that comes with the role, but you can't really have a conversation with each other..."

Alison Clarke provides clear and precise answers for everything... except her age.

"I'm not answering that question," she said firmly.

Clearly, it was time to move on to a different topic.

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