Darren Clarke: Time to be a champ again
James Corrigan talks to Darren Clarke about the incredible year when he finally realised his ultimate dream... and where he goes from here
The problem with lifelong dreams is they are invariably fulfilled in the middle of one's life and not at the end. What to do in the days, months, years and decades which follow? It is a conundrum Darren Clarke is still coming to terms with almost six months after he realised what everyone agreed was his destiny.
Certainly, he won't give up and wallow in the rich nostalgia of his achievement. Granted, he did spend Christmas Day with his fiancée and two sons watching a rerun of that wet and wild Sunday afternoon in July when he was crowned Champion Golfer of the Year at the 20th time of asking.
But as he did so, with a fine claret in that finest of Claret Jugs, something would have gnawed away inside. "I now need to validate that Open victory," he says.
So much for fulfilment. If anything, Clarke has become even more obsessed with delivering on his talent. "Royal St George's made me understand how winning a great prize like that can almost taunt you if you don't reach those standards every week," he says.
It is fair to say that for the past few months, those golfing taunts have been merciless.
In the wake of his triumph, Clarke expressed his wish to bottle the serenity he displayed on the Kent coast. Alas, the vessel cracked and the recipe was lost - 2011 played out with a frantic urgency.
Clarke became so demoralised with his form, he was reluctant to be a part of the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year show.
"Rory [McIlroy] will win it many times, but it is Luke [Donald] who really deserves it," so Clarke said. "What he did in winning both money lists was incredible. I'm not sure it will ever be done again."
Clarke sees Donald's consistency and swoons. The big man from Tyrone isn't blessed with the uniformity of temperament to effect week-in, week-out excellence. Yet what he does have in his substantial armoury is the ability to put it all together for four days of glory.
That has not deserted him, regardless how wretched the golfing hangover. Clarke must realise the Open has bought him the time to reprise the splendour.
"With that win, Darren made sure he has full-time employment for the next 12 years," says his manager, Chubby Chandler. "He is in all the majors for the next five years, I would imagine he will be Ryder Cup captain, and then he is exempt on the Seniors Tour until he is 55. That is a hugely comforting thought."
If only Clarke could feel so soothed. He sees the calendar from a more sinister angle. "I'm 43 and I have to accept that if I'm going to win another major, it will have to be in the next year or so," he says.
Hence what his coach calls the "must, must, must" instead of the "can, can, can".
The trouble is there's no switch to turn it on and off; sometimes things just happen. Clarke's route to attaining an ambition most experts believed had been irrevocably shattered reads like a literary jigsaw.
All the pieces fitted together to create the image of the sporting year. As Clarke points out, it began with a single putt and a paltry £1,500 in the desert seven months earlier. That's all that separated Clarke and the young Italian Matteo Manassero.
"If I hadn't pipped Matteo to get into the top 30 of the Race To Dubai, which earned an automatic spot in the Open, then I would have had to go through qualifying and who knows what would have happened?" says Clarke.
"I knew coming into the Open I was playing OK, but I'd had a terrible final round in the Scottish Open the previous week," adds Clarke. "But I had a good session with Pete on the Tuesday morning."
It was at this moment when fate chose to play its hand once more. By chance, Clarke ran into Dr Bob Rotella, the sports psychiatrist he had employed previously in a garlanded career which had brought two WGC titles as well as Ryder Cup legend status.
Clarke told the American of his frustrations on the green and the pair went to work. Rotella instructed Clarke "to putt like a child", "to stop thinking". Very soon a rhythm emerged, both on the greens and in his schedule.
Crazy, maybe, but nobody can say the ploy failed. Clarke smiled when others could only scowl, he accepted the breaks while the others fought for control. Here was the perfect example of how to tackle an uncompromising links. With patience, with control, with imagination.
"Just think, if I hadn't moved back to Portrush 18 months earlier, I wouldn't have played all that links golf with my mates in conditions which made those at St George's seem pleasant," says Clarke. "That wasn't the reason I went back - I went back because it was good for my family. It had a big influence on my win."
Everything has to be taken into account as Clarke plots what happens next. The lessons of the Open should be clear; the requirement for a relaxed, but structured, environment is plain. Much twaddle has been written about a partying lifestyle. If anything, Clarke has been working too hard and reverted to his frenzied want-it-too-much mindset.
"I'm frustrated because I've been working my b*****ks off," he says. "I know the impression focuses on the banter and drink. They see me with a pint of Guinness and say I'm more concerned with having a good time than playing good golf. That couldn't be further from the truth. When I'm at home, I'm hitting balls nine hours a day. At tournaments, I'm often the first on the range and the last to leave. It does not always produce the desired outcome, but it is a fair measure of my work ethic and how much I care about this game."
He knows it himself - he cares too much. This festive season gives him the much-needed opportunity to regroup.
"More than anything, I need some time with my feet up with my boys [Tyrone (13) and 11-year-old Conor] my fiancée [Alison] and my family around me," he says. "I will be able to reflect in a more balanced way just what this year means to me. You can't plan for something like winning the Open. I wouldn't have it any other way, of course I wouldn't. But at the same time, I'm looking forward to taking stock of all that's happened.
"I want to win more tournaments. I have to figure out how to do that as a major champion."
His management are on the case as well. They are looking for a fitness instructor to work and travel with Clarke, to help sharpen his focus and manage his nutrition.
For Clarke the journey isn't over. Indeed, it's probably only just beginning.