You’ve no idea how important Irish Open is to me, says Darren Clarke
Open champion tells Peter Hutcheon that winning at Royal Portrush would be right up there with lifting the Claret Jug at Sandwich, and reveals his hopes for a Major being played on the famous north coast links
Nothing will stop Darren Clarke from living it up at Northern Ireland's biggest ever golf party at Royal Portrush next month.
Bringing the Irish Open to the north coast, when he will be introduced to his home Ulster fans as the reigning Open champion, will be one of the highlights of his career.
He was acting the part of lord of the manor to perfection at the final press briefing at the club with final preparations for the tournament now well under way.
Clarke, a tanned and relaxed individual yesterday, has been the central figure in bringing the Irish Open north of the border for the first time in more than half a century — and he's not the type to turn down an invitation to the biggest party of them all.
And even if it means skipping the US Open to be able to play at Royal Portrush, then so be it.
“I am doing everything I can to be ready for the Irish Open here,” he said. “I've pulled out of the US Open to give myself time to recover from the groin injury which has been niggling me for some time.
“But I would even play in a Zimmer frame if it was necessary, it's that important to me.”
There's no doubt in anyone's mind that Clarke sees a successful Irish Open at Royal Portrush as a vital part of the gameplan to bring back the big one, the Open Championship he won in such grand style almost 12 months ago.
He has thrown his not inconsiderable weight behind this year's event and was busy dropping some not so subtle hints to the R&A.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the R&A will be paying very close attention,” he said.
“This is a major stepping stone towards getting the Open back to Royal Portrush.
“It's not the easiest place to get people around but I have no doubt that the Irish Open will be a huge success and that the R&A will be very aware of how the tournament is run.”
If lifting the Claret Jug last summer at Sandwich will be the highlight of his career, winning an Irish Open title in front of an Ulster crowd would rank a pretty close second.
His form this year has given no real suggestion that he can put right that omission to his CV but, then again, never has the championship been played in his own back yard.
And he reckons a little local knowledge around a course like Royal Portrush will go a very long way.
“I've been playing around here since I was 11 years old when my dad used to bring me up in the evenings to play when the green fees were cheaper,” he said.
“All the Irish guys playing will know it and, with a course like this, that can only be an advantage,” he said.
“I fully expect to see two or three of them at the top of the leaderboard going into the Sunday afternoon.”
If Clarke is to be one of those two or three, he needs to get over the injury which he says has been preventing him from hitting the ball at full power.
Skipping the US Open — an event he hasn't always qualified for in recent years — is a big statement of intent about how much a home Irish Open means to him.
As well as being an advisor to Royal Portrush on the set-up for the tournament, he has also been working with the European Tour behind the scenes on the more mundane tasks. Anything to make sure it goes off without a hitch.
And with tickets already sold out for the final two days and crowds expected to approach record levels for a European Tour event, he's not done a bad job so far.
“It's not very often we have the services of a Major champion on hand to be involved so centrally with the planning of an event like this,” the Tour's Richard Hills said. “It's not just out there on the golf course that he has been involved, but in all aspects of the event.”
Like the rest of us Clarke has been enjoying the warm Ulster summer weather this past few days — but has also been keeping an eye on what effect it has been having on the golf course.
“If it stays like this the course will be fast and bumpy and you could see a score of 20 under winning,” he said.
“But we want to see it with a 20 mph wind blowing in and get them drenched a couple of times as well.
“If 20 under wins that's fine, but if 10 under wins it and the course has played tough, then that's great as well.”
Clarke gave Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster (pictured) a guided tour of the course yesterday as interest builds towards the Irish Open, which starts on June 28 with a thrilling climax in store on July 1.
There are two other current Major champions in the field besides Clarke — his fellow Ulsterman Rory McIlroy and American Keegan Bradley.
McIlroy puts his US Open title on the line in a fortnight’s time, while Bradley is the US PGA title holder.
They are joined by 2010 US Open champion Graeme McDowell, who grew up in Portrush and will be relishing playing on home turf.
Add in three-time Major champion, Dubliner Padraig Harrington, and it makes for quite a line-up.