Darren Clarke can hardly be accused of trading on former glories. “If you walked into my house, you wouldn’t know that I play golf,” says the Northern Irishman. “There is a 50% replica of the Claret Jug but that’s the only reference.”
That treasured ornament provides Clarke with deserved memories of 2011, when at the age of 42 and at the 20th attempt, he became Open champion. Amid emotional scenes at Royal St George’s, Clarke had reached his Holy Grail. Six years on, as he prepares for another appearance in the major he placed before all others even before victory, Clarke admits an element of psychological turmoil.
“I look back on it now with a massive amount of pride but also ‘How did I do that with the way I’ve played since?’” he says. “I scaled the mountain. It was everything that I wanted to achieve, from when I picked up a club. Then I tried to change things to make myself even better when I didn’t need to. Such was my desire to get better but it backfired.
“Right now, the game is difficult. When I started playing, 37 years ago, I didn’t think it would become as difficult as it has become.”
Clarke’s results back up this sentiment; he is yet to make a European Tour cut all season and has slipped outside the world’s top 1,000 ranked players. If there is a sadness attached to such a contributor to his sport being this way, Clarke is also due immense credit for refusing to throw in the towel. Recent television appearances have shown Clarke as an excellent, natural analyst; there is an alternative career option but he won’t pursue it.
“When you come off the course and you’ve missed another cut on a Friday, it’s a special type of madness to keep on going,” Clarke says. “But you have to. What’s the option? Pack it in? I don’t want to pack it in because I’d miss it. If I didn’t have the thrill of competition, I’d be very flat.
“There is frustration because I’m not playing the way I want to play. I’m not striking the ball the way I want to and the hole seems to have got smaller as I’ve gotten older. It’s hard for me because I still love the game. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with golf. Currently hate is winning the battle by a long way because it’s not much fun when you go out there and play poorly. I don’t put all the hours of practice in – which I still do – to play poorly.”
Clarke’s acceptance of Ryder Cup captaincy for last year at Hazeltine immediately appeared a brave move owing to a combination of circumstances; including the level to which his immediate predecessor, Paul McGinley, was lauded. The US team duly justified heavy favouritism with comfortable victory, a success which still grates with Clarke.
“Every other day,” he replies when asked how often he considers Minnesota. “I think back with disappointment that we lost. I think in terms of ‘What could I have done differently?’
“There are various scenarios there but 4-0 down after the opening session was maybe a scenario I didn’t give enough contemplation to. I got criticism from certain quarters for putting out different foursomes on the second day but after losing 4-0 was I to do the same again? A few curveballs had come my way before the event and during the event so things had to be changed from what my original intentions were.
“I’m not going to sit here and say it was fantastic, it was great and I did everything right. If that had been the case maybe we would have won. I’m not stupid or arrogant enough to speak that way.”
There was and is a widespread sense that the Ryder Cup needed what was an overdue American success. “I would probably agree with that,” says Clarke. “I just wish it hadn’t come on my watch.”
He is one of few golfers to have retained a close friendship with Tiger Woods. When en route to winning the Open, Clarke was the recipient of constant messages of encouragement from the golfing superstar who has recently fallen upon troubled times.
“He got a hard rap from a lot of being how he was,” Clarke says. “Yet the people he was good to, he was very good to. When you get to where he was as a global icon, how do you trust people? How do you know they aren’t out for their own benefit?
“Like any friend of someone going through tough times, you feel for him obviously. I have spoken to him a little bit, he is trying to do the right things.”
Clarke is not as dismissive as some regarding whether a player of his age could win an Open again in the near future. “If weather conditions prevail – and mine was a very difficult weather week – then yes,” he says. “At that point, experience comes into it an awful lot.”
The 48-year-old’s eyes light up as he looks forward to the Open of 2019, to be held at Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951. “The course is sensational,” says Clarke.
“To have one of the biggest sporting events in the world coming to Northern Ireland is massive, it’s a sign of how much we have moved on. There was a time when people would have been scared to come. I would think it will be the quickest ever sell-out of Open tickets.”
For Clarke’s own sake, hopefully his on-course status is more promising by then. This week at Royal Birkdale would be an endearing place to start yet another renaissance.