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Par of love: Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke open up

By Ivan Little

In a BBC NI documentary to be shown tonight, our three top golfers give a fascinating insight into what motivates them, how they cope with vast wealth and their friendship with each other.

Rory McIlroy would have seen the question coming, looming ahead of him like a fiendish bunker or a tricky water hazard. For even though he might wish his romances were out of bounds for interviewers, the savvy superstar from Holywood knows that his love matches attract as much media attention as his golf game.

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So when the BBC's Stephen Watson gives him his best shot about his highly publicised dalliances with the opposite sex, Rory is ready with his answer. The 25-year-old, who famously broke off his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki just after their wedding invitations went out in the post, says: "I am at the stage of my life where I'm putting golf first. For the foreseeable future that's what it's going to be.

"We travel so much, we're never really in the same place for very long so it is hard to keep relationships going if you want to start one. So golf is my girlfriend and it's going to be that way for a while."

His Danish ex-fiancee's name is never mentioned, but later in Watson's documentary, Major Champions, McIlroy wrong foots his interrogator who wants to know what he would have been if he hadn't been a golfer.

"A virgin," replies Rory.

As the title of the documentary suggests the programme is not a one man show.

Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell sit alongside Rory in their chintz chairs and under a glistening chandelier in the opulence of a luxurious Wirral hotel for the minor miracle that is Watson's coup in getting an extended interview with the Major champions who've won six high profile titles in four years.

But Clarke and McDowell know that Rory is the man of the moment, the man in the big picture.

When Watson points out that the trio have won £50m on the European tour alone, McDowell then interjects: "That's 48 for Rory and one each for me and Darren."

But there's no sense of envy in the one hour documentary. What comes across is an unforced, freewheeling rapport between the threesome who've known each other throughout their formative golfing years.

Right from the start, the banter, the wisecracks and the wind-ups flow with McDowell's strange mid-Atlantic accent – and the trio's dodgy hairstyles down the years a constant butt of the jibes.

Rory even reveals that Darren used to call him Coco because of his curly barnet.

They all give as good as they get and rib each other about the weighty issue of their waist sizes, with the new slimline Clarke just slightly bigger than McIlroy.

And there's not so much as a hint of any tension between the two younger golfers even though there's a courtroom battle going on in the background over commercial issues.

Rory tells Stephen Watson: "I've got a very special relationship with these two guys. And it goes beyond just the success that we've had on the golf course. It helps that we are all from the same part of the world and I think that's what brings us together more.

"Seeing Graeme win the US Open at Pebble Beach inspired me to think that I could achieve the great things that he did in 2010. And I think what I did in 2011 inspired Darren at Royal St George's (where he won The Open)."

The three golfing greats, who are respectively in their 40s, 30s and 20s speak of their humble beginnings, their families, their pride in Northern Ireland, their charity work and the pressures they face living in the spotlight.

The cars they arrive in for the interview and the expensive watches on their wrists make it clear that these are three seriously wealthy men. But they insist there's more to golf than greed.

Rory admits the money on offer is mind-boggling, but he says his only thoughts as he played his early golf in Holywood were about winning, not about the rewards.

He adds: "The money is nice and we are able to live a very comfortable lifestyle, but at the end of the day it's about titles, it's about trophies; it's about creating history."

The sacrifices of the trio's parents are all warmly acknowledged in the documentary and Rory says he's glad he has been able to repay Rosie and Gerry McIlroy by giving them the ability "to do whatever they want".

Clarke, whose love of cars used to make regular headlines, sidesteps a plea to name some of the flashiest vehicles, insisting they were "too foolish, too stupid, too many but they were all great".

What really matters to him, he says, are his two sons, Conor and Tyrone, and his "great" second wife Alison, a former Miss Northern Ireland who still runs her own modelling agency in Belfast.

Life has clearly been sweeter for him since he moved back to Northern Ireland from England, where his sons were at boarding schools, which meant his opportunities to see them were limited.

The interview was recorded before McDowell's wife Kristin gave birth to their baby daughter Vale Esme, but he says he is looking forward to raising his new family, something which will relegate golf to his second priority in life. "I've never been happier."

Graeme broke the news of the birth on social media but all three golfers agree that living life in the goldfish bowl of Facebook and Twitter can be difficult, especially when millions of people seem to have cameras on mobile phones

Darren says: "We are supposed to behave in a certain way because we are in the public eye. But just because we play golf doesn't mean we are any different from anybody else."

Rory says: "Even when you should be enjoying your time with your friends or your family you have always that guard up because you know that if you put a foot wrong it's going to be pounced on."

Rory admits that he gets more media attention than the others because "of some of the decisions I've made off the course".

But he says: "The advice my mum and dad always gave me was to be yourself and be happy and if you do that people can say and write what they like."

All three men talk of their excitement about the prospect of The Open returning to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.

Darren, who rates Royal Portrush as one of the best golf courses in the world, says that The Open would be particularly special for people like him who had grown up through the Troubles.

"To come from the dark ages we were in not too many years ago to where we are now is a pretty incredible achievement for all those people involved," he says.

McDowell talks of his frustration at meeting golfers in the past who were scared off from coming here because of the 'stigma' of the Troubles.

He says: "For everything that has gone on in the country politically, religiously and from a peace point of view to galvanise that with The Open championship coming is a big boost for the whole country financially, economically and emotionally."

The former world number one Tiger Woods is also canvassed for his thoughts about the Open in Portrush, which he says "would be pretty incredible". He is also quizzed for his views on what makes Northern Ireland such a productive breeding ground for golfing superstars.

"I think if you grow up playing links golf it does help quite a bit because you have to understand shot-making; you've got to be able to manoeuvre the golf ball," he says.

Graeme says people all over the world always ask him what's in the water back home.

He and Rory say one reason for the success is that golf here is affordable and accessible on top quality and varied courses, plus there's the fact that youngsters are encouraged to play the game.

Another Northern Irish golfing giant David Feherty, who is now a star of golf shows on American television, also gives Watson his assessment of what makes the three champions tick.

"For such a small population to turn out three Major champions, to be ambassadors for Northern Ireland, makes me so proud I can't tell you. It's a phenomenon," says Feherty, who was the assistant professional at Rory's Holywood Golf Club 19 years before "the little bugger was born".

He says he's impressed with Rory's level-headedness: "He doesn't act like a superstar. He's grounded."

Feherty, who hasn't toned down his Ulster accent, stresses that no matter what the Americans say, he still calls a McDowell a McDowell.

And Graeme also gives his tuppence worth on the name game, saying that his father Kenny used to get annoyed with the McDow-ell version of the family's name before his son persuaded him to accept that if people were saying good things about him he didn't mind if they called him McDole or MaDole as Rory corrects him.

The light-hearted joking during the interview quickly gives way to serious reflection over the golfers' rises to the pinnacle of their sport.

Clarke opens his heart about the emotion of bringing home the iconic Claret Jug to his sons three years ago – a moment that was especially poignant given the loss of the boys' mother Heather, who was just 39 when she died in 2006. "It was really emotional because of what the two boys went through in their personal lives," says Clarke. "There were tears in my eyes."

Clarke's celebrations became the stuff of legend. All three golfers recall the night they went to the Ramore Wine Bar in Portrush for a knees-up and a Guinness drinking competition, which McDowell won.

The trio also talk of the importance of bringing their trophies home, not just for their families and their golf clubs but also for Northern Ireland.

"We are proud to be from home. Our little country gets a lot of bad PR and media stuff around the world but there's an awful lot of good in Northern Ireland," Darren says.

The documentary includes footage of the three mens' dads – Gerry McIlroy, Kenny McDowell and Godfrey Clarke – playing a round of golf together and talking of their pride at their sons' achievements.

The programme also focuses on the philanthropic side of their sons, who have all set up foundations. Clarke's charity helps to nurture new golfing talent and Rory McIlroy says he was an early product. But the foundation also raises money for research into breast cancer, which claimed the life of Heather Clarke.

"There is a cure there somewhere, they just haven't found it yet," says Darren.

The film also shows McDowell, who has raised £1.5m for a new cardiac unit at Crumlin hospital in the Republic, meeting sick children from all over Ireland who were given a dream holiday to Disneyland in Florida.

Rory's foundation gifted £1m to the Cancer Fund for Children here and he's filmed with youngsters at a therapeutic break centre in Newcastle, Co Down.

Returning to the subject of golf, Graeme and Rory say Darren should be the next Ryder Cup captain for Europe, and the Dungannon man admits it would be a great honour.

He says he should have won more championships than he did. "But I was too busy having too good a time along the ride."

Looking ahead, Rory, who had always vowed to quit the game by the age of 40, says he's not ruling out playing for 10 years beyond that milestone. "I don't think you ever lose the competitiveness."

And Graeme likens golf to an addiction. He adds: "Being out there competing and the adrenalin and the focus and the will to win is like a drug for all sportsmen. And I don't think the three of us will ever want to give that up."

  • Major Champions, is on BBC1 NI, tonight, 10.35pm and tomorrow, BBC2, 1.30pm

Securing interview was no tap-in

It was anything but elementary for Stephen Watson to get his golfing scoop. He'd tried for what seemed like an eternity to get Northern Ireland's triumphant trio of golfers to sit down together for an extended interview to talk about their six major wins in four years but their million pound jetset lifestyles and commitments frustrated the BBC presenter every time.

Padraig Harrington even bet him £20 that he would never be able to tie Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell down to the same place on the same day.

But during the Open at Hoylake earlier this year, Watson collected his winnings after landing his scoop with the dream team in a luxury five star hotel in Cheshire.

And so his documentary Major Champions was born.

The seeds for the programme were actually sown by McDowell, who several years ago told Watson that it would be great to bring the three Ulstermen together for an interview. But it wasn't as easy as it sounded.

Watson says: "It was a logistical nightmare. We were trying to pull it together for 18 months. They are incredibly busy men and if they're not playing golf they have corporate commitments. And if they have time off they want to enjoy that time off."

Down through the glory years, Watson has built a close relationship with all three golfers, following their every move on their paths to their titles, much to the envy of other broadcasters who never have anything like that sort of access to the trio.

Right up to the last minute Watson was sweating about whether or not the interview would actually happen.

"By his own admission Graeme's timekeeping is unbelievably bad. The others call it G-Mac time. But he was the first to arrive and he enjoyed the fact that he was there before Darren Clarke, who is a stickler for punctuality."

Watson says the rapport between the three men was easy and natural and made for a relaxed interview.

The TV presenter is a keen golfer himself but he admits he has learned little from watching the three champions at close quarters.

"I spend too much reporting on golf and not enough playing it," he says.

Watson has known Rory since he was a youngster. But despite his surge to the top of golf, he says he hasn't changed.

"He's a global superstar but he's exactly the same now as he was then. He has a great sense of humour and he's great to be around."

Of all three golfers, Watson says: "They all remember where they came from.

"And they always make time for me during tournaments because they know what I am doing will be going out on television back home."

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