As they shook hands on the 18th green on Friday at Killarney, Darren Clarke offered four quiet words of advice to Rory McIlroy.
“Be patient, you Muppet,” Clarke said to his mop-haired young compatriot after they’d played the first 36 holes of the ‘3’ Irish Open together.
Which, of course, bring the words ‘kettle’, ‘pot’ and ‘black’ to mind for anyone remotely familiar with Clarke and his infamously volatile nature.
So McIlroy must be forgiven for his quick-fire retort to the older man: “Will you practice what you preach?”
The 21-year-old laughed yesterday as he recalled this brief exchange before embarking with Clarke on their final nine holes of practice at rain-doused Whistling Straits, venue for this week’s US PGA Championship.
When the snickering stopped, McIlroy admitted few are better qualified than Clarke to proffer this advice and how his prospects of winning Majors rest squarely on his ability to apply it.
World No 8 McIlroy is third-favourite this week behind an ailing Phil Mickelson and troubled Tiger Woods and is many people’s fancy to lift the 27lbs Wanamaker Trophy skywards on Sunday.
First, the Holywood youngster must learn how to bear the considerable weight of his own expectations and discover within himself the patience necessary to succeed at the Major Championships.
He missed the cut at The Masters and US Open this year. Then, after a record 63 in the first round of The Open at St Andrews, McIlroy crashed back down to earth so heavily with a nightmarish 80 in howling gales on Friday, he did well to his way back into a share of third place on the Sunday.
If ever patience was needed on the golf course, it was in that second round at St Andrews and veteran US commentator Dan Jenkins summed up the situation neatly that day with his astute observation that “McIlroy’s too young to realise that 76 can be a good score.”
It’s all part of the learning process, McIlroy admitted yesterday: “Sometimes it’s difficult for me to accept that you’re not going to have a good day all the time on the golf course. All that comes with experience and I feel I’m getting better at it.
“You saw me at The Irish Open, I was very, very down on myself there,” he added. “I sort of let my head go down (at the weekend in Killarney) and tried to get to the clubhouse as fast as possible.
“It’s hard for someone as young as I am to have patience all the time. Everyone tells me ‘Rory, just be patient’ but it can be hard to do that when you’re trying to get somewhere so fast. It’s only my third year as a pro and when success comes so fast, you don’t really want to slow down.”
McIlroy could hardly find more affable company yesterday than Clarke, who’s found new perspective in life after following the traumatic events which have befallen him and his family since he last played the US PGA at Whistling Straits in 2004.
“This is the happiest Darren’s been for a long time,” McIlroy said. “He’s really looking forward to getting back home to live in Portrush; he’s got a really lovely girlfriend in Alison (Campbell from Belfast) and the kids are looking forward to getting back to Northern Ireland as well. I think he’s in a really good place.”
This week is of particular poignancy for Clarke. The fourth anniversary of his wife Heather’s passing from breast cancer occurs tomorrow, followed on Saturday by his 42nd birthday.
Few Irish golf fans will ever forget the overwhelming emotion of Clarke’s appearance at the 2006 Ryder Cup or forgive the crass insensitivity of Nick Faldo in omitting him from the European team for Valhalla. The latter represented a serious setback in his career but Clarke stoically kept his counsel as he worked tirelessly over the past two years to rebuild morale and momentum.
His recent second place at Loch Lomond; qualification for the Open at St Andrews; invitation to play this week’s PGA and a decent showing in Killarney has rekindled Ryder Cup vice-captain Clarke’s faint hopes of making it to Celtic Manor as a player with a performance Whistling Straits.
“I’m just older and allegedly wiser now,” he says. “You just take what life throws at you and you deal with it the best you can. We all get some rough cards dealt to us now and then and you just do as well as you can.
“Sometimes rough cards also bring rewards, they definitely do,” he added, obviously referring to the powerful bond with his sons, Tyrone, 12, and Conor, 9 as his description of an idyllic recent afternoon clearly indicates.
“On Sunday evening after finishing in Killarney, I drove home, dropped Alison off in Belfast and headed up to Portrush, where I stayed with my sister (Andrea), who was looking after my boys (Clarke’s own new house won’t be ready for a couple more weeks).
“The four kids went out to play golf on Monday at Bushfoot (golf club in Antrim) and I walked around with them in my jeans with my trainers on. I just wandered around after them with a pint of Guinness in my hand and watched. It was brilliant, just a casual, normal thing I’d never be able to do living in London.”
Though he insists “family comes first” and believes himself to be “much, much more patient that before” in his career, Clarke adds: “golf is still up there. I’m still as mad and determined as ever.”