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Darren Clarke - Fightin' Irish

Will Clarke put aside his past inconsitencies to win more regularly asks Dermot Gilleece

Posted May 16, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

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Arguably the best assessment of the newly-crowned Iberdrola Open champion was by no less a figure than Tiger Woods, the player he comprehensively outplayed at La Costa in 2000.  "Darren is either playing great and winning tournaments, or he's missing cuts," said El Tigre.  "That's the way he plays.  When he gets on a roll ...."

Clarke probably wouldn’t thank his old adversary for the inconsistency implicit in those words.  Yet he would have to acknowledge their basic truth, now that his best golfing years are probably behind him.  From being in a position to capture the Open Championship in 1997 and 2001, he has not qualified for the US Masters since 2007 and last played four rounds in the US Open in 2006. 

As if paraphrasing Woods’s words, he told me recently: “When I'm good I'm very good and when I'm bad I can be very bad.”  Then he added: “But I'm trying to change that. It has taken me quite a while to mature emotionally but I feel I'm getting there.”

Clarke has always been very much a mood player.  And while contemporaries would probably credit an overdue victory to recent tournament form and long hours with their coach on the practice ground, the Ulsterman talked in Majorca last Sunday evening about a Caribbean holiday he had just had with his two sons.  That’s what put him in the victory mood.
 
The fact is that serious students of golfing form wouldn't dare apply the normal, competitive criteria to this most unpredictable of players.  From the time he and Padraig Harrington came together in the World Cup in South Africa in 1996, he liked the idea of himself and the Dubliner carrying Irish hopes in major international tournaments.  And by way of emphasis, he pointed to a series of putter-head covers prepared for him by the design staff at Taylor Made.  In the American way, they considered it appropriate to include the slogan "The Fighting Irish", alongside a tricolor.

Yet where Harrington went on to win three major championships, the highest peaks Clarke has climbed have been the Accenture World Matchplay and the NEC at Forestone.  Though the talent has always been there, the problem was to get it out.  “You think I'm not pissed about lying fourth after the first round of the Masters and then missing the cut?” he once remarked to me in exasperation.  And reflecting on Troon ’97 when he was two shots out of the lead going into the last round only to drive out of bounds on the third hole, he said: “I’ve good memories of that Open but, hopefully, I can make a better fist of finishing off the job, if I get into that position again.”

On the weekend of the Players Championship, being out of the world’s top-50 wouldn’t have been easy for a player who, for much of his earlier career, never had to bother about such details. “It can be very difficult,” he said. “And an additional problem is that the standard is getting higher all the time.  But my desire for the game is as strong as ever. Just because I've moved home (he invariably refers to Portrush as home, even though he hails from Dungannon) doesn't mean I'm going to reduce my schedule in any way.  I'm still as determined as ever.”

Two key areas of play which greatly helped him last Sunday were the moderate level of scoring and the wild, difficult conditions on a testing course. Achieving a winning target of six under par was never going to come down to a putting competition, so exposing a fragile area of Clarke’s game.  And the windy conditions gave a huge advantage to the best ball-striker in the field.

Will Clarke continue to win regularly now that he’s established as a forty-somethin’?  Only time will tell.  We can be reasonably sure, however, that any additional grey hairs will be attributable to genetic reasons rather than undue stress created by his golf game.  It has taken quite a while, but a notoriously volatile character eventually seems to have found peace.

- Dermot Gilleece

 

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