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Golf: Darren's Ol right

By Karl Mcginty

Darren Clarke received a warm welcome back to the European Ryder Cup family as home captain Ian Woosnam held a hush-hush get-together at The K Club.

Darren Clarke received a warm welcome back to the European Ryder Cup family as home captain Ian Woosnam held a hush-hush get-together at The K Club.

Handed a wild card by Woosnam last Sunday, Clarke played a key role in Thursday's secret mission, flying the skipper, vice-captain Peter Baker and three of his fellow players, David Howell, Luke Donald and Paul Casey to Straffan in his private jet.

They were met at The K Club by Pádraig Harrington and Irish vice-captain Des Smyth, while Jose Maria Olazabal flew all the way from San Sebastian in his own executive jet, despite an early morning technical hitch with the aircraft.

It's a measure of Clarke's stature in the world game that his selection for next week's showdown with the US was viewed as a fait accomplit once he made himself available for the European team.

Less than a month after wife Heather, the mother of their two young boys, lost her long and brave battle with cancer, the Dungannon man is preparing to enter one of the most challenging psychological arenas in sport.

At the get-together, Ryder Cup legend Olazabal insisted that Clarke will be a hugely influential figure for Europe next week, adding that he trusted implicitly his team-mate's decision to put himself forward for selection.

"After all he's gone through, it's going to be good for Darren to play in the Ryder Cup. For the whole team actually," said Olazabal, who played with Clarke in a friendly fourball with Smyth and Baker.

"First of all, having him in the team is great because he is a very strong player," added Olazabal. "But everyone will also be more together because of him. It is going to be a positive thing.

"What Darren has gone through obviously has been tough. None of us is ready to go through a situation like that at a young age. The most important thing for him and the team will be to stay together and go through the Ryder Cup as a family.

"That'll make everyone much happier and stronger too," explained the six-time Ryder Cup veteran, insisting he saw no risk in Clarke's selection.

"I played with him at Loch Lomond in July and he played awesome golf. He didn't miss a single shot.

"If he's eager to play in the team, it's because he feels it is not going to be an issue and we have to trust him. I do, 100 per cent."

Smyth insisted that Clarke struck the ball "fantastically well" and Olazabal said: "After seeing him at Loch Lomond, I wasn't surprised at all. It was fun today, very relaxing.

"That was the key, to spend some time together, see how the course is playing and have some fun.

"Tonight we will just sit down over dinner and talk about it," added a relaxed Olazabal, delighted to be back in the Ryder Cup family himself after a six-year absence.

Clarke looked every bit a man in his own natural environment from the time he stepped onto the practice tee at The K Club just before lunch to the cheerful handshake he offered Baker after Woosie's vice-captain sank a 10-foot birdie putt to halve the match.

Yet he politely declined to comment, pointing out he'll be back "in a golfing frame of mind" at next week's Madrid Open, where he'll give a formal press conference on Wednesday.

Unlike the massive media circus surrounding the US team's rain-lashed visit to The K Club a fortnight ago, this was a far more private occasion, a gathering of friends and fellow professionals.

Six of the European team were able to respond to a last-minute rallying call from their captain - Paul McGinley and Lee Westwood are both playing in Singapore, while Sergio Garcia is competing in Crans.

"I tried to get this set up last week," said Woosnam, revelling in the warm sunshine and clearly a lot more comfortable among his players on the range than under the spotlight at last Sunday's massive press conference in Munich.

"It was a bit late notice but I was going to come over anyway and see the golf course.

"I spoke to Darren about it and he wanted to come, so I said let's see how many we can get along.

"Obviously some of the boys are playing tournaments and some have got other engagements. But we've got six guys here and Peter Baker and Des Smyth made up two four-balls, so that was great."


From Belfast Telegraph