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The day Darren Clarke 'outplayed' peak Tiger Woods and blazed a trail for Irish golfers

 

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Well deserved: Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods embrace after the Ulsterman's 2000 triumph

Well deserved: Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods embrace after the Ulsterman's 2000 triumph

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Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods shake hands

Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods shake hands

Getty Images

Well deserved: Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods embrace after the Ulsterman's 2000 triumph

On days when he let his imagination wander, Rory McIlroy would once have dreamt of today being a memorable one in an historic career.

An unforgettable homecoming in Holywood after pulling on that long sought-after green jacket, the completion of golf's Grand Slam elevating him into the pantheon of the game's all-time greats.

Any such dreams have been put on hold until November at the earliest, as have those of Shane Lowry, Graeme McDowell and Mallow amateur James Sugrue, all of whom would have had their own fantasies about being the one to finally bring Ireland's missing Major to these shores.

There was a time, of course, when the thought of any Irishman heading into the champions locker room with the sport's most iconic prize secured would have seemed just that - a fantasy.

In early 2000, only six Irishmen had ever earned an invitation to Augusta, let alone contended for the title.

It was then, though, a decade before McDowell at Pebble Beach, when the Peugeot Spanish Open was the only European Tour title to Padraig Harrington's name and when McIlroy was coping with the new-found fame of chipping into Gerry Kelly's washing machine, that Darren Clarke could celebrate Irish golf's first ever PGA Tour win, and true to form, celebrate he did.

The build-up to the 2000 Andersen Consulting Match Play at La Costa focused almost exclusively on one man.

Coming into that February weekend, Tiger Woods had won two Majors - he'd add three more that year - and had eight wins from his last 11 tournaments.

Sponsors had taken note and on the news stands at the time were copies of Golfweek that, off the back of new deals with Nike and General Motors, speculated that the 24-year-old had the potential to become sport's first billionaire. The 'Tiger Effect' trickle-down had yet to occur, though, and the now-commonplace purse of $1m at the first WGC of the season caught the imagination.

Concerned with smaller bills was Clarke, who in the days before the competition had lost 175 of them to his manager Chubby Chandler.

Long before emotional Ryder Cup heroics at the K Club or his unforgettable Open triumph at Sandwich, Clarke was still a player of some repute with three top-10 finishes at Majors to his name but the then World No.19 was struggling for form.

A week prior at the Nissan Open, Clarke had missed the cut by a distance. Having left Riviera on the Saturday he tried to get some of his mojo back and into the swing of matchplay against Chandler, spotting his manager four shots a side. He lost 6&5.

"It was a stuffing," he recalled on handing over the $175. Under the circumstances his odds of 66/1 at La Costa could have been considered short. Rumour had it that flights home were booked at the end of each day's play.

Drawn against Paul Azinger in the first round, the American who won the 1993 PGA Championship had tasted victory only a month prior at the Hawaiian Open.

Clarke's 2&1 victory saw him already better his performance from the year before. Up next, another Major champion lay in wait, this time Mark O'Meara, winner of both The Masters and Open in 1998. For a player who had never recaptured the matchplay dominance of his amateur days on the professional circuit, Clarke's 5&4 win, the highlight of which came with a 30ft chip-in for an eagle, certainly caught the eye of those back home.

For those on the ground, Woods remained the only story in town, demolishing Michael Campbell and Shigeki Maruyama either side of a tighter affair against Retief Goosen.

After beating Thomas Bjorn on the 18th, Clarke almost came unstuck against Hal Sutton having been three down after four but battled back to take the match by a hole.

While Woods' semi-final was another procession - 5&4 over Davis Love III - Clarke's afternoon meeting with David Duval was expected to be his exit, setting up a final between the World No.1 and No.2.

Not so fast. Clarke won again, this time an impressive 4&2.

Few could have been happier than Butch Harmon, who coached both finalists, remarking that night that Clarke was "playing the best I've ever seen him play... if I could get him to lose 20lb he'd be better".

While Clarke's reputation as an everyman has always been something of a forced construct, the media enjoyed pitching the next day's final as a battle between 'fit and fat' - a cigar-puffing, Guinness-swilling Irishman against an athlete who a few years later would, as a hobby, undertake some elements of Navy SEAL training.

Even Woods was in on the joke. When Clarke remarked that if the World No.1 felt prone to any histrionics in the final he'd be the recipient of a dig in the mouth, the American laughed that Clarke would have to catch him for that.

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Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods

Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods

Julien Behal

Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods

 

When he asked why the tee-off time was so early on the Sunday, Clarke was informed it was to be played over 36 holes. "Is it?" came the reply.

What followed was described by Sports Illustrated as "one of the finest displays of golf of the past 10 years".

The underdog described by the same once-vaunted sporting bible as a "teddy bear of a man" was in irresistible form, making birdies on 12 of the 33 holes played for a 4&3 win.

"Flat outplayed," was the tamed Tiger's post-round summation while the American media who had arrived ready to witness another procession left with notebooks filled with gold-dust quotes of dusty gym equipment and celebratory champagne.

A real breakthrough at 31-years-old, Chandler reflected that this was the first time he could truly claim his charge wasn't an underachiever.

The first Irish sportsman to ever bank such a cheque for a solitary victory, what would he do with the winnings? "Spend it," came the mischievous reply.

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Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods shake hands

Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods shake hands

Getty Images

Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods shake hands

So much has changed in the intervening years - for Clarke, for Irish golf and the game itself - that the weekend two decades ago gives the impression almost of a different generation now.

But for all the unforgettable Stateside victories since, Clarke v Tiger will always have its place, the first chapter in what has become quite the story.

Belfast Telegraph


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