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Darren Clarke's European Ryder Cup stars are on top of the world

By Jonathan Bradley

With the first Major of the season out of the way, Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke was encouraged by the performances his potential team members put in at Augusta last weekend.

When Danny Willett slipped on his green jacket, the Masters had been won by a European for the first time since Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999 while a further six landed a top 10 finish.

Lee Westwood, the former world number one, ended up second while Paul Casey was also under par for the weekend.

With his exemption for winning the 2011 Open up this summer, Clarke may well have played his last round at Augusta over the weekend but liked what he saw from those he hopes will capture a fourth successive Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National in September.

"The guys played really, really well," said the Dungannon man.

"To have the winner - and have Lee up there in second.

"Then Matt Fitzpatrick, Justin Rose and all the guys.

"It was very encouraging for the Europeans."

A surprise victor at 66/1, Willett will have a massively increased profile in Minnesota five months from now, even if he was hovering just outside the world's top 10 last week.

Describing the Sheffield man's "big-game mentality", Clarke has no doubt he will thrive under the pressure.

"He's now the Masters champion and any Major champion is going to be a very important part of any Ryder Cup team," he said.

"He was almost guaranteed his place before he won with the points he accumulated but to have him there as a Major champion is a great thing.

"It's a long time until the team is finalised but certainly from my point of view I thoroughly enjoyed watching him.

"He's always had a big game mentality, the desire, the determination, and he's always worked very hard at it.

"The last couple of years his game has been on an upward trend and it was great to see him do what he has been working so hard to do."

Stating there is little point concerning himself with the potential of his American opponents at this stage, the 47-year-old is excited about the challenge ahead while still maintaining that much will change between now and the first fourball of September.

"If you go back and take a look at every qualifying process the team at this stage is never anything like what it is at the end of the process," he said.

"But I've been working away, doing a lot of stuff for it. There's a lot of preparation goes in behind the scenes for the Ryder Cup but the European Tour have a great team there to walk me through it.

"You can get excited, and of course I am, but as the team is finalised is when everything kicks off.

"I've been around the game for a long time and it's going to be an unbelievable experience certainly from a personal point of view but all I'll try and do is help the team as best as I can."

With Clarke's captaincy, and Rory McIlroy sure to be considered one of the team's leaders, the role of Ulster compatriot Graeme McDowell is less defined.

The 2010 US Open winner has been a key figure in past tussles - memorably sinking the winning putt at Celtic Manor in 2010 - but has fallen from a high of fourth down to 66th in the latest world rankings.

Clarke says he has outlined what needs to be done for the north coast native to make the team, stressing that the pair's friendship will have absolutely no bearing on wild card picks. "I've spoken to Graeme at length," revealed Clarke.

"He won in Mexico at the end of last year. He hasn't quite been where he wanted so far this year but he's shown glimpses. Graeme knows what he needs to do to make the team.

"We've spoken both as captain and as friends and hopefully he does what he needs to because I know how good G-Mac is in those pressure situations.

"If he doesn't qualify automatically, just because he's your friend doesn't guarantee a pick. I'll pick whoever I think is best. Graeme knows me well enough to know that."

On McIlroy - who endured a rough Saturday at Augusta to derail his bid to win a first green jacket and become just the sixth man to secure the career grand slam - Clarke added that he has no doubt the four-time Major winner will one day soon clinch victory in Georgia.

"Rory is Rory," he said. "You never know what you're going to get; he's got so much talent but he's going to win there sooner or later.

"His game is too good not to. He'll win there soon."

DARREN Clarke was speaking at Royal Portrush - venue of the 2019 Open - yesterday as the Ryder Cup started a tour of Europe.

Fans can see the Ryder Cup trophy on public display today at Belfast City Hall (9am-10.30am) and then Victoria Square (11am-9pm).

Belfast Telegraph


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