An aura of affluence and success accompanies Darren Clarke and his wife Alison into the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel Dublin. He is tall, solid, purposeful. She is tall, blonde, glamorous. Even those who do not recognise the 2011 Open Champion and, quite possibly, Europe’s next Ryder Cup captain, could not mistake him as anything other than a fellow at the top of his game, whatever his game might be.
In purely playing terms, however, they would be wrong. Ever since he won the Open, Clarke’s golf, in his own words, has been “poor to say the least”. It hasn’t been for want of trying, but the demands on his time have multiplied hugely. “I just need to be patient, but patience is not one of my virtues,” he says. In any case, poor golf or not, his life has been massively enriched, partly because his name is at last on the Claret Jug, golf’s most venerable trophy, and partly, too, by his relationship with Alison, a former Miss Northern Ireland, whom he married last year. They live in his home town of Portrush, County Antrim, with his two sons by his first marriage, to Heather.
Heather Clarke died of breast cancer, aged 39, in 2006. Six weeks later her widower played in the Ryder Cup, at the K Club in County Kildare, and the world of golf held its breath as he stepped up to hit his opening tee shot. Clarke had not qualified for the team, but had been a brave wild-card selection by captain Ian Woosnam. Nobody, first and foremost Clarke himself, knew how he would cope with the almost overwhelming poignancy of the occasion.
“My thought processes were … you’d better put a few asterisks in there,” he says now. “‘Don’t f*** it up. Trust your routine, pick a target, make a swing and hit it.’ But as sure as I’m sitting here, I had no idea whether I was going to hit it 20 yards low left, 30 yards high right, or whatever. I just got into my routine, and flushed it straight down the middle. Lee [Westwood, his playing partner] and Billy [Foster, his caddie] were in tears behind me.”
That perfect drive on the first hole at the K Club was followed by a pitch and a putt for perhaps the most remarkably assured birdie even in the long history of the Ryder Cup, a small but significant part of the reason why Clarke is now a decent bet to be Europe’s next – as ever, non-playing – captain, at Gleneagles in 2014. Whether as a player or in a captaincy role, he is the ultimate team man.
Moreover, his Ryder Cup experience in 2006, in the timeline of a career that long seemed destined never to quite fulfil its promise, led to the Open victory at Royal St George’s, Sandwich. This raised Clarke, then aged 42 and at the 55th attempt, to golf’s true elite: those who have won major championships. “It was one of the things I drew on, for sure, not on the Sunday [of his last round in the 2011 Open, which Clarke began with a narrow one-shot lead over the American, Dustin Johnson] but the evening before. I thought, ‘if I can do what I did at the K Club, which was the most nerve-racking moment I will ever have on a golf course, then this won’t be too difficult’.”
He concedes that, in a way, all the stars were in alignment over the blustery Kent coast that week. “I felt at St George’s as though I’d really served my time. The game was giving me something back, and it gave me the biggest and the best. I was so calm all week. If I’d been younger, I could never have kept my mental side in check, because that had always been my difficulty. But you learn about yourself in adversity. I’d had tough times, and I had two young boys. Trying to make sure they were all right was more important than any round of golf. All that helped. So, yeah, it happened at the right time.”
It was the most popular of triumphs, and, astonishingly, it gave little Northern Ireland its third major champion in not much more than a year, following the US Open victories of Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy. Clarke had taken conspicuous pleasure in the success of his fellow Ulstermen; now they returned the compliment. And compliments arrived too from his good friend Tiger Woods, who had been “very special” in the weeks following Heather’s death.
“You know, a lot of people still talk to me about Heather,” says Clarke, 44. “But it’s more than six years now since she passed away, and it’s hard for Alison. She’s really understanding, and gets on great with the boys, but I feel for her. Heather’s photos are up in the kids’ bedrooms and we talk about her a lot, but it’s a tough scenario.”
At least it’s a scenario unfolding in the place he loves most. Clarke was advised to carry on living near London after Heather died, so his sons had some stability, but County Antrim kept beckoning. “Tyrone was at boarding school, and Conor was about to start, and I hated that,” he says. “I had very few close friends there, there was a bit of media intrusion, and a couple of people let me down in various ways. I ended up trusting very few people. So we moved back home. They’re at a really good school now, as day boys, and my sister’s two boys are the same age, so they all play golf at Royal Portrush together, rugby together. They’re having the same upbringing I had. They’re happy, I’m happy. Nobody bothers me in Portrush. There are five or six mates I have a drink with every Friday; a landscape gardener, a plumber, an electrician, a couple of policemen. They all rip the piss out of me. I have an ordinary life.”
Ordinary to a point. Golf has made him immensely wealthy, although he enjoys spending it at least as much as he enjoys making it. “But I’m quite sensible at the moment,” insists one of sport’s most notable bon viveurs. At one point he owned seven cars; now he’s down to three, albeit all Mercedes. He and Westwood have sold the jet they once shared. And, much as he adores fine red wine, the one he’d drink forever if compelled to choose would not be a super-expensive claret but a Spanish Vega Sicilia Unico. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s not cheap, either, but it’s not like Latour,” he says.
Another passion is fly-fishing, and he assures me that he will retire from competitive golf when he is 55, to focus on the to-catch list headed by the gigantic tarpon. But he has other fish to fry before then, and it could well be that this month will see him appointed Ryder Cup captain, which tends these days to be an all-consuming task. That this charismatic, sometimes headstrong man will rise to it like the elusive tarpon, however, is beyond doubt.
‘An Open Book’, Darren Clarke’s autobiography, is published by Hodder & Stoughton