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Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy the toast of Ireland

By James Corrigan

More than 100,000 are expected here at the Irish Open these next four days as a golf-worshipping public turns out to salute their major champions of this remarkable last 14 months.

Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell have already been nicknamed “The Tee Amigos” and as far as the first-name is concerned they will never become “The Tea Amigos”.

“I drink a little bit too much, smoke a little bit too much, and enjoy myself a little bit too much at times,” declared Clarke.

“It's the way I relax and I don't intend to change that in any way shape or form.”

And there’s no sign of the celebrations drying up as yesterday Clarke and McIlroy were presented with European golf’s highest award of Honorary Life Membership of The European Tour, following in the footsteps of McDowell.

The pair each received an Honorary Life Membership card from George O’Grady, Chief Executive of The European Tour, at the Pro-Am on the eve of the Irish Open.

While Clarke's euphoric receipt of a long written-off major was toasted in Britain, on his home island the reaction to his excess has triggered a debate.

Indeed, the negativity which greeted his marathon celebrations were the one thing which surprised him in the aftermath.

“There's been a little bit of chat about — ‘he shouldn't have had a drink’, ‘he shouldn't have done this’, ‘he shouldn't have done that’,” said Clarke.

“I don't know, people need to get real. Look what happened in Norway over the weekend. I won a golf tournament and people are concerned about whether or not I had one pint too many? I mean, get a life. It's just sport.”

Clarke's bemusement is understandable.

“There's been phone-ins, radio shows, newspaper articles,” he said, perplexity ringing out from every tone.

“I think it would be very poor of me if I was to change the way that I am because of a few people's opinions. And that's not going to happen.”

Why should he change? After all as the old joke down Weight Watchers goes, “he's a fully overgrown man”. Clarke has always done things his own way and has come to accept you can't please anyone all of the time.

It is advice he has doubtless shared with McIlroy, the US Open winner who McDowell referred to yesterday as “young Darren”.

“Their personality traits are very similar in many ways,” said the 31-year-old.

“They are both kind of flashy and flamboyant and like the finer things in life. And, of course, they are both extremely talented.”

McDowell, who belied size and reputation actually beat Clarke in a pint-drinking competition last week, could also comment that they both are wont to say exactly what they think.

Certainly that was the case at Sandwich where McIlroy witnessed his honeymoon period reach a sudden halt.

After finishing 25th, the overwhelming pre-Open favourite told reporters he didn't like the conditions and “will have to wait until it's nice weather to win an Open”. McIlroy's claims to greatness — which he didn't make — were now in question.

“They build you up, build you up and can't wait to pull you back down again,” McIlroy said yesterday.

“If I'd had a little more time to think about it I would have said something different. But I was very frustrated and was just being honest.

“Those conditions didn’t suit me or my game and I'm going to have to learn to play in those conditions going forwards.”

At 22, he has just received a crash course in celebrity. In three weeks he went from the boy champion who won by eight shots to the man with an interesting love life.

If Clarke was depicted as having “one too many” then so, too, was McIlroy. Only his were girlfriends.

As the Open's final cheers were still drifting across Pegwell Bay so a hazy picture caught on an opportunistic mobile phone went around the globe showing McIlroy in a passionate clinch with the former tennis world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki.

Having professed his “special” feelings for long-time girlfriend, Holly Sweeney, in a BBC documentary aired that very week, McIlroy's halo was in danger.

His management company moved quickly to release a statement saying that McIlroy and Ms Sweeney had “amicably” split. Behind the scenes, they admitted there was something between McIlroy and Wozniacki.

The word is last week, he holidayed with the Dane in Monte Carlo. The subject was only broached in the media room yesterday when a journalist said to him: “I notice you have a couple of plasters on your fingers. What are they from? Tennis perhaps. “Very funny,” replied McIlroy with a grin.

Later he dismissed the assumption that the break-up on the eve the Open distracted him from his historic purpose.

“It didn't affect me at all,” he said, before he touched on the inevitability of his new liaison being revealed.

“I will try to keep [my life] as private as possible. Sometimes it won't be possible. I'll just have to handle it the best I can.”

McIlroy is still learning; as, more interestingly, is Clarke. The next lesson may be life-defining. “I'm fortunate in that I've done almost everything there is to do in the game,” he said.

“I've won a major, I've played Ryder Cups, I've even won big tournaments around the world — in America, everywhere. I need to sit down, reassess and figure out some new goals.”

Obviously, the first will be to achieve the Open double, coveted by every Irish golfer, north or south. And despite his “flu” — caused, he admits by “being a little bit run down” — his chance should not be ignored.

The only three members of the world's top 50 here happen to be the Tee Amigos, while one of the next highest-ranked is Padraig Harrington, the Dubliner credited by all three yesterday as beginning this astonishing run with his three majors from 14 months from July, 2007.

The punter who invested €50,000 (£44,163) at 5-1 on Mclroy will definitely hope the conviction is proven correct.

On a parkland course which should suit, he has every right to be favourite to take the win which would hurtle him into the final major of the season, the USPGA, in two weeks' time. It only adds to the expectation here in Co Kerry.

“The people are very excited,” said McDowell.

“It's funny, there was a hell of a buzz at this tournament after I won the US Open last year — but this will be a whole new level.

“It's going to be nuts out there and hopefully on a beautiful golf course in glorious sunshine we can get a home winner.”

If it does, those alcohol naysayers had better sharpen their pencils.

Belfast Telegraph


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