By Brian Keogh
Darren Clarke has lashed out at the critics who say he’s finished as a Major force.
And the Dungannon man took a giant step towards proving that it’s business as usual this week when he signed a massive three-year deal to represent Portuguese golfing mecca Vilamoura as their touring pro.
Golf resort giants the Oceanico Group has bought out the five courses at Vilamoura in a deal worth €125 million.
And Clarke, 38, is determined to repay their faith in him by showing the world that he can still hack it at the top level and win a Major title.
After crashing out of the world’s top 50 recently, followed by his swift exit from the Accenture World Match Play in Arizona, alarm bells are ringing for Clarke as a major force.
But the Ulsterman hit back hard, pointing to Fred Funk’s PGA Tour win at 50 last week and to Jack Nicklaus, Nick Price, Mark O’Meara and Vijay Singh, who all won majors late in their careers.
Clarke rapped: “As far as I am concerned there’ve been a few people that have decided I’m done, but I wouldn’t quite see it that way.”
Then he added with a grin: “What age did Nick Price win his first Major at? What age did Vijay win his first Major? What age did Mark O’Meara win his first Major? Maybe I’m not quite b****xed yet.”
Whatever about Clarke’s feelings on his ability to win a Major, there is no denying that he has fallen off the pace set by young guns such as Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey in recent months.
And he’s also a long way behind Tiger Woods at 51st in the Official World Rankings - endangering his place in this month’s WGC- CA Championship at Doral in Miami,
Bullish to the core, Clarke shrugged off that possibility as nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
Ater the tragic loss of his wife Heather to cancer last August, he accepts that he is at a crossroad in his personal life but refuses to concede that his golf is on a downward spiral.
Reflecting, he said: “Is it almost like starting over? No. Maybe the rest of my life, yes, that may be case but not the golf. The golf, I’ve just got to get back to what I was doing.
“So far this year I’ve been competitively rusty. The game is not that bad. I just haven’t quite got the knack of scoring at the moment but will come back again through play, playing tournaments.”
Clarke’s 19th hole defeat to Sergio Garcia in the first round in Tucson last week had a silver lining in the shape of front row seats for Ireland’s 6 Nations destruction of England at Croke Park.
As a rugby nut, the defeat was well worth it in his eyes
He said: “I was there last Saturday, it was fan-tastic. It was absolutely brilliant. The way they were for the National Anthems and all that sort of thing and no hassle outside, absolutely none, it was fantastic.
“And I was delighted to be there. Was missing out at the Match Play worthwhile? Most definitely.
“I don’t get to see that many games because I’m away all the time but that one was special, it was good, really, really good.”
Getting back to the golf, Clarke revealed his pride at representing the Oceanico Group’s massive golfing portfolio on the Algarve.
It’s a place where he spent many happy family holidays before his family life was torn apart by his wife’s illness.
That trauma has taken its toll on his golfing career over the past four years but Clarke is now ready to give the game his full attention once more and get the very most out of his considerable talent.
Denying that he was like a heavyweight champion trying to make a comeback after putting away his gloves, he explained: “You talking about champions putting gloves down and coming back again, basically they’re done and they’ve finished boxing.
“I don’t perceive it that way at all. I’ve had to take an enforced break from golf and that was not through my decision whatsoever to do. That was under circumstances. I’m not trying to catch up. I’m trying to play golf. And that’s what I’m doing.
“If you take a look up to four years ago. I had a few chances to win Majors and I didn't take them. I didn't get myself into position as often as I could.
“In the subsequent four years you are all aware of what was going on. So four years is 16 majors and that's quite a gap. That is not an excuse for that. At the end of the day I haven't played well enough to compete and give myself enough chances.”
World Golf Championships are almost as important and Clarke must play well in Singapore next week to qualify for the CA Championship at Doral, an event he would normally have walked into as a permanent fixture in golf’s top 30.
He sniped: “Do think it’s going to bother me if I’m not in Miami. Do you really think it’s going to bother me?
“Yeah, it bothers me that I’m not in the top 50 in the world but it doesn’t bother me if I don’t play Doral because I only managed one good round there last year anyway so it doesn’t particularly bother me.
“I’m happy with what I am doing. Keep doing the work that I am doing and I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine.”
Winning majors means beating Tiger Woods on a regular basis - a feat he has achieved more than once in his career so far.
And he believes that recent defeats for Woods outside the US have come because they world players are hungry to put one over on the world No 1.
He explained: “If you compete against him week after week you are going to lose more often than you win.
“Whereas the Europeans and the guys around the world don't get the opportunity to compete against him on regular basis. So therefore, you try to make the most of your chance”
The Majors are what drives Clarke, however, and he can’t wait to get back to Augusta next month to challenge for his first green jacket in the Masters.
He said: “If you're short game is on at Augusta you can do quite well. But you must putt well at Augusta. You have to. It depends whose short game is on that week.
“Your short game has to be sharp because everybody is going to stray where they don't want to. So it depends on your short game is.”
Clarke believes his short game is “on track”.
Does he believe he can still win a Major at 38?
His response: “I have no reason not to believe that at all.”