The Open: What sort of defence will Darren Clarke put up on Thursday?
In the autumnal, post-euphoric phase of his Open Championship reign Darren Clarke could be found outside the clubhouse at a near deserted Royal Portrush Golf Club loading the sticks into the back of the car.
The clubs were removed, cleaned and returned lovingly to the bag in their appointed slots, much like a craftsman might pack his tools at the end of a shift. It is odd intercepting a golfer minus caddie, especially an Open champion, watching him lug the bag around solo. It was early afternoon. Clarke had appointments to attend. The thought occurred that he had maybe squeezed in a social nine holes before his engagements began.
“Yep, that would be right,” Dungannon born Clarke said. “I have been here since first light hitting balls, chipping and putting. People think I’m just a p***head drinking Guinness all day. This is my job. Every day is the same. Up early, hard at it, down here trying to improve.”
Clarke was smiling as he delivered the rebuke. Few work harder at this game, yet it is his love of the black stuff that claims the attention not the dawn vigil on the range, a common sight wherever Clarke tees up. And when the round is over, he is often the last to leave, pitching balls into the gloaming.
This was a good day. You might imagine that, having won the Claret Jug at the 20th time of asking at the age of 42, each day thereafter would be one of celebration. That is not how it works.
His victory at Royal St George’s was indeed cathartic, a source of pride, but by November it had acquired a deal of extra weight. Not for nothing did Clarke’s achievement earn him the comeback of the year gong at the Laureus Awards. It came during a period of struggle and doubt. Clarke is prone to introspection. You will recall how a session with sports psychologist and golf guru Bob Rotella in the week of The Open triggered the dramatic change in outcomes. It was not a happy Clarke that reached out to Rotella but one desperately seeking a solution.
It came in a rush. None could argue it was not deserved. Clarke won by three shots in the end, a fair reflection of his mastery of conditions that turned evil and of temperament. Clarke is one of the most talented players these islands have produced, approaching genius on links courses.
He has more than 20 wins worldwide, including a couple of prestigious World Golf Championship victories. He had won two months before — the Open in Majorca, his first victory in three years, but had faded again as Royal St George’s approached. Hence the call to Rotella.
His post Open results fell back into a negative pattern and Clarke found the juxtaposition of Major winner and missed cuts difficult to bear.
The BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards proved especially tough with world no.1 Luke Donald, who broke new ground in topping the money list on both sides of the Atlantic, and record US Open winner and Holywood star Rory McIlroy in the field. Had he a choice Clarke would have preferred to steer clear of the whole shebang.
He felt almost embarrassed by his form and unworthy of the comparison to Donald in particular. He was wrong about that, as the vote proved with Clarke second behind cyclist Mark Cavendish, a reminder of sorts of the esteem in which he is held by the British public.
He will not be short of support this week when he returns the Claret Jug to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at Royal Lytham. Nor will he be the last to suffer conflicting emotions at the handover; sadness at parting with the oldest pot in golf, relief perhaps at not having to measure himself
against all that being champion means.
“I’ve had a wonderful year off the golf course, but a very frustrating year on it,” Clarke said.
“I play golf to win tournaments and I’ve been nowhere near that standard for quite some time. I’ve got pretty annoyed and although I’m practising and doing all the right things, it just hasn’t clicked so far. I played really well in France last week and I was not too bad at the Irish Open. I just want to give myself a chance at Lytham and be competitive. I feel no pressure as my name is on the Claret Jug and it will be there forever.
“I’ve had a wonderful year as Open champion. I really have. To be announced on tees as Open champion around the world, not many people ever get that. And I’ve looked upon that as an unbelievable honour. A couple of weeks back, on the tee at Portrush, ‘Darren Clarke Open champion’, that’s as big an accolade in the game as you can actually get. There isn’t anything better than that. It’s been brilliant. Whether I suddenly start playing great again after the Open, we’ll see.”
As Clarke recognised few are expecting him to contend, which is just the position he was in at Royal St George’s. “I wasn’t supposed to win it last year, so it’s nice to go to Lytham where I’m not supposed to win it this year. I know what winning a Major is like and I want more of it. That’s why I’m practising. I’m craving more success.”
Clarke is inching towards equilibrium. He comes to Lytham a married man after tying the knot with fiancée Alison in April. The caddie that carried his bag at St George’s, John Mulrooney, is gone as is the flirtation with a full-time fitness coach. From these details a welcome calm flows. He was one bad hole from a run at the weekend in Paris last week and saw encouraging signs on his home track at the Irish Open, where he made his first cut of the year.
None did more to sell the event and a full house on the Antrim coast paid a handsome tribute in every clap and cheer.
Clarke has maintained a level of popularity among the galleries across these isles, and among the players. His old chum and fellow fortysomething Ernie Els, a man who has been wrestling his own catastrophic dip in form, recognises the symptoms shown by Clarke and offers this encouragement.
“I know he’s struggling with his game. I also know he’s not that far off. He’s got that great ball flight and if he gets that same talk he had last year (from Rotella) who knows? That could just swing things.”
It has taken Clarke a full year to find anything like a balance, to adjust not only to the demands associated with being a Major winner but to the idea itself. In that sense he arrives at Lytham unencumbered.
“I’ve been pushing myself harder and harder and harder, not because I’m resting on my laurels and thinking, ‘that’s it’. It’s been the other way. It’s because I’ve been practicing too hard and wanting more. I’m not thinking, ‘I’ve won the Open, I’m done’, I’ve gone completely the other way. I want more and have been working myself into the ground.
“I knew that I’d want more. That’s the way I’ve always been. You’re only as good as your last event. If I was to go to the Open this week, play well and get myself into contention, would I be surprised? No. I’m old enough and long enough in the tooth to do it. So if I do, great stuff. I’m pretty happy where my game’s at right now.”