By Brian Keogh
Darren Clarke didn’t win the US PGA at Southern Hills - or even come close.
Yet he believes his 96 hours in Tulsa mark the start of an exciting and challenging new chapter in his golfing career.
And after marking the first anniversary of his wife’s death on Monday and then celebrating his 39th birthday yesterday, he feels ready to move forward with his life and his game again.
Before he left sun-scorched Southern Hills on Sunday night, Clarke was bracing himself for a “difficult” Monday morning reunion with his sons Conor and Tyrone on their mother’s first anniversary.
Yet he made the trip home full of optimism, explaining: "The thing is, I've got a golf game now to go forward again. I've got a head now to go forward again. So, hopefully there are good things to come.
“Over the next few weeks I'm playing Gleneagles, Switzerland, Mercedes and British Masters. I can't wait to play these tournaments to build on the confidence I've gained here.”
Clarke’s confidence does not stem from his finishing position - tied 42nd - but the mental strength he showed by coming back from a first round 77 with a superb 66 in the second round.
But for two closing bogeys on Saturday, he would have broken 70 for only the seventh time in 49 tournament rounds this season.
And even his final round 74 was a triumph of sorts as he soared to six over par after 10 holes but refused to throw in towel and came back from to play the last eight in two under.
The old Darren Clarke would have exploded at the ninth, where he ended up taking a double bogey six after watching his chip from the back of the green run off the other side and 60 yards down the fairway.
Determined to take the positives from his finish, he said: “I was able to buckle down and grind out a 74. I didn't want to shoot a 77 or 78.
“On that ninth hole, I've been in the middle of the fairway three times and carded two double-bogeys and a bogey. So I've thrown five shots away on that one hole alone. Silly mistakes from absolutely nowhere.
“But that comes from not being competitive. And when I play a bit more with the way my game is now, I feel confident I can eradicate those mistakes.
“I can accept the errors of the weekend because Friday proved to me that I can play again. A couple of months ago I probably would have shot 78 or 79 today. But I didn't. I shot 74.
“This may not be a big deal to anybody else. But it certainly means a lot to me. And I'm giving myself a pat on the back for that. I'm trying my bollocks off. I don't want to shoot 77s or 78s any more. I don't play the game for those sort of numbers.
“What I've done here may not set the world alight. But the important thing for me now is that I know I'll all right. I know I'm fine. I'm definitely on the right track. If you can ever be happy with a 74, it's going to do fine for me right now.”
World No 1 Tiger Woods understands better than most what Clarke is going through having seen his brilliance at first hand in the 2000 Accenture Matchplay final and suffered the loss of his father Earl 16 months ago.
The game’s greatest player even took time out in Tulsa to offer his friend a sympathetic ear, spending 15 minutes chatting with him on the driving range early last week.
Clarke’s plight has touched many around the world but his loss of form has left him in a delicate position from a professional point of view.
Once the world No 6, he is now ranked 143rd and if he doesn’t get back into the world’s top 50 before the end of March next year, he will not be playing in the Masters.
As it is, he only got to play the Open and the US PGA this season thanks to his Ryder Cup credentials and failed to pre-qualify for the US Open at Oakmont.
Yet Clarke knew that his wife’s death was going to hit him hard and having come through the his first 12 months as a widower, he is looking ahead with renewed hope that things can only get better.
He said: “I was told when Heather died that although my life would never be the same again, it would probably be a year before things would turn round.
“Hopefully things will soon get a little easier for the boys and me and the way forward becomes ever clearer.
“I have been surprised and touched by all the messages of support and to this day they continue to come in.
“When I was on the range at Southern Hills, Tiger Woods came over for a chat which went on for a good 15 minutes.
“He didn’t have to do it, but it says a great deal about the man that he came over to check how I was doing and ask about the boys, Tyrone and Conor. He was aware that the first anniversary was just round the corner.
“It was very kind of him to say what he did and I greatly appreciated him taking time out to offer his support and best wishes.”
During the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron two weeks ago, a spectator handed Clarke’s caddie Billy Foster a $100 bill as a donation for Clarke’s Foundation.
Foster has been one of Clarke’s most loyal supporters over the past few years and no-one is better qualified to comment on the Ryder Cup hero’s current form.
After Clarke’s first round 77 in Tulsa, the straight-talking Yorkshireman looked almost as upset as his boss.
But he was a happy man as he left the course on Sunday night, revealing: “He has rediscovered the knack of scoring.”
Foster has a rhinoceros-like skin after toting the clubs for employers such as Seve Ballesteros and Thomas Bjorn. But his relationship with Clarke goes beyond mere work and he took immense satisfaction from watching the beleaguered Ulsterman turn a major corner in his career in Tulsa.
Standing outside the clubhouse last Friday, Foster was happy to explain how he had motivated his boss and steered him towards that career-chancing 66.
He said: “I never stopped biting his head off all the way round. I was saying to him: We're sick of losing, we're sick of losing. Do me a favour today. Do it for yourself and do it for me. I want you to shoot the lowest round of the day.
“I was just getting his ear. Take his attention off making the cut and make him think of shooting the best round of the day. Make his fellow peers say: ‘Fair play Clarkey, the best round of the day.’ That's what I kept saying to him. Show you can shoot five under.
“On the par-three 14th he missed the green with a three-iron and chipped it over the green into the rough. With what has been going on with Darren this year you are thinking he is going to make double bogey. But he chipped to a foot and made bogey.”
Though Clarke did manage to equal the best round of the day when he finished, his effort was left in the shade later on when Tiger Woods came with a hairsbreadth of carding the first 62 in a major.
But Clarke’s 66 must have felt like a 59 and he almost bounded up the steps of the Southern Hills clubhouse after carding what he believes is “big, big” round in terms of his golfing future.
Just how significant his score will prove to be, remains to be seen. But Clarke had no doubts, explaining: “It was pretty big for me after the year I have had. On a course like that. You need a round like that to remind you that you can do it.
“I have had a terrible year but I have worked and worked and worked. So to go out and do it on a golf course like that and play as well as I did was satisfying. It was by no means a lucky 66.
“Of course I have pride. I don't want to keep on missing cuts, do I? Am a better player than these scores I’ve been making? Yes, my close circle of friends tell me that all the time. You guys know that, I know that. It is a difficult thing. It is a difficult thing I have had to deal with.”
The key to Clarke’s round wasn’t just the way he shaped the ball beautifully off the tee or followed bogeys with birdies but a spectacular birdie two at the 245-yard eighth.
Foster explained. “It was a three wood shot but he knuckled a hard drawing five wood to three and a half feet and that showed that he was proper back, I thought.”
Clarke's former neighbour Paul McGinley hopes that his close friend can come back from his toughest ever year.
He said: “I hope so. I hope I do too. This time last year we were off to Heather’s funeral. It has been a rough year for us.”