Clarke refuses to settle for Nick pick

By Brian Keogh

Darren Clarke

Darren Clarke knows what he likes - boys toys like his Lamborghini Murcielago, the new Hummer-style golf cart he drives to the range at Queenwood, his iPhone, the private jet he co-owns with Lee Westwood, pints of Guinness and even the odd fag.

But he doesn’t like personal questions so when he’s asked if he’s had a congratulatory text or even a phone call from Tiger Woods in the wake of his comeback victory in the BMW Asian Open two weeks ago, he immediately goes on the defensive.

“Next question,” he bellows, though he’s smiling when he says it. “I’ve had plenty of messages. But I’m not telling you. All the messages were of a personal nature. So. Next question!”

Clarke and Woods haven’t played in the same tournament since January’s Dubai Desert Classic and while their reunion in next month’s US Open at Torrey Pines depends on the world number one’s recovery from knee surgery and Clarke’s impending qualifier at Walton Heath, the Ulsterman is hoping for many more meetings this season. And that includes the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla in Kentucky.

Hurtling towards his 40th birthday in August, Clarke’s life has changed utterly since he handed Woods a 4 and 3 corrective in the final of the 2000 WGC-Andersen Consulting Match Play at Carlsbad near San Diego.

But that 40-foot birdie putt on the final green in Shanghai has opened a Pandora’s Box of possibilities in the already massively changed life of one of sport’s quintessential heroes.

Prematurely written off as a man on an inexorable slide towards “irrelevance” by a British broadsheet last year, he now finds himself plotting his way to a sixth Ryder Cup cap.

And after being handed a wildcard by Ian Woosnam in 2006, Clarke wants to make the team automatically this time.

“I don’t want to have to rely on a wildcard again,” Clarke says. “Definitely not. The captain’s picks are there for the captain to decide who he thinks will help the team. And the way I am thinking now, I want to play my way on. If it so happens that I am close and just outside and Nick (Faldo) gives me a pick, that would be fantastic as well. But the way I am looking at it, I want to qualify for it.

“I need to win again, maybe a couple of times. But the way I am looking at it, I want to keep on playing the way I did in Shanghai. And if I keep doing that then hopefully that will be good enough because that will give me an opportunity to win on a much more regular basis.”

Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell are delighted that a “stalwart” like Clarke is back in the Ryder Cup reckoning at a time when the side currently features five potential rookies.

And Clarke agrees that experience will be vital when Faldo’s side turns up to take on a fired up American side in Kentucky later this year.

“With all the big money events coming up there will be a totally different complexion to that team than the one you are looking at on paper at the minute,” says Clarke, who is one big win away from making the side automatically. “At the minute you look at it and you do need some more experienced players because it is totally different to anything else we play. The Ryder Cup has a huge amount of pressure and as much as you think you are ready for it, it is that little bit different. Even the seasoned guys who have played lots of Ryder Cup still get as nervous on the first tee as they did in the first one.

“You need the likes of Padraig there and you need Lee and those sort of guys. I am working and doing everything I can to make sure that I am one of those that are in there as well. There is a long way to go. But certainly after Shanghai, I have taken a big step up the ladder.”

The Ryder Cup will always hold a special place in Clarke’s big heart, but has set his sights on emulating Open champion Padraig Harrington by claiming victory in one of golf’s four Major championships. Or at least, that’s the plan.

More than a year has passed since he insisted that he wasn’t “quite bolloxed yet” and as he juggles with the responsibilities of single-parenthood and admits that he has no idea whether he will ever contend for golfing immortality again in one of golf’s grand slams, it’s not going to stop him trying.

Slimmer and more flexible than he has been in quite some time thanks to personal trainer Rob Watts, his putting is literally back on track after intensive sessions with alignment specialist Stephen Feeney, a man who spends most of his time sorting out the cueing actions of snooker stars Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis and Marco Fu.

The desire is still there but just how well Clarke manages to combine his duties as a single dad with the selfless dedication required to succeed in the modern game remains to be seen. He’s got to find a balance, he says, and it isn’t easy.

“At the end of the day golf is my job, it’s my living,” Clarke explains. “I enjoy it most of the time, I have been blessed with a bit of talent at the game and I have been very fortunate. But you know, I don’t see myself spending half my day in the gym and the rest of the time hitting balls. I have got things that I have to balance up.

“I am a single parent and I’ve got to look after my boys and that has its own demands. So in terms of what I want to achieve, the desire is still there and the determination is still there and the work ethic is still there. And that is always going to be the case. Now whether I get back up to challenging for majors again, which is what I want to do and what I intend to do, we shall see. My life at the moment has settled down again and I am keen to get out and play golf and I want to challenge for tournaments. I might be coming up to 40, but I look at Vijay playing as well as he is and I look how Mark O’Meara won two majors in his 40s. So hopefully I am not quite done yet.”

With the help of coach Ewen Murray, Clarke has worked hard on flattening his swing plane to find the consistency of strike that has allowed him to rack up 18 professional victories, including two World Golf Championships, since 1992.

So how close is he to recapturing the kind of form that allowed him to hammer Woods in California eight years ago?

“Not far off at all” he says before finishing a jet-lagged 22nd behind Peter Lawrie in Sunday’s Spanish Open. “I am swinging the club better than I have probably ever swung the club. My putting has improved and everything is working in the right direction. I’d say I am hitting the ball now as well as I have ever hit the ball at any stage in my career.

“Winning in Shanghai was such a big deal for me to get over the hurdle and almost get that win out of the way, because it was always going to be so tough. And now I can’t wait to play. I am so keen to get out there and play.”

Memories of the 2006 Irish Open at Carton House, when he let the title slip away with a duffed pitch to the 72nd hole in a Monday finish, will be fresh in Clarke’s mind when he tees it up at Adare Manor next week.

But his sights are firmly fixed on the majors and after watching Harrington get his reward for all his hard work at Carnoustie last year, the Ulsterman is praying that he too will get his chance to join the greats before he’s finished.

He says: “The Open is the biggest and best tournament in the world and Padraig’s success last year has spurred on all the other Europeans, and I am no different. I want to be there and compete and that is why I practice, to compete in the bigger and better tournaments.

“Did Padraig’s win spur me on? Yes and no. I was delighted for Padraig but as I said earlier, if you put the work in, sometimes you get the results out. And there has been no harder worker in the game of professional golf than Padraig Harrington. It is fantastic to see a guy who has put in all those hours of hard work and dedication lift the Claret Jug. But in the same breath it has definitely spurred on the Europeans, which you could see in the first major of the year at Augusta. Even though, they didn’t manage to finish it off on Sunday there were a lot of guys up there. Padraig has definitely given the Europeans a huge boost. Me included.”

While the red mist no longer descends as frequently as it once did, controlling his emotions has always been a challenge for a perfectionist like Clarke. Still, he has no plans to become a monk just yet.

“I don’t know if I lose my rag anywhere near as much as I used to do. I get frustrated and all that but I don’t get as angry as I used to,” he says with a chuckle. “I am still the same sort of guy who enjoys a bit of craic and a few pints and a smoke now and again. That is just the way I am and I have got to keep being he way I am and keep doing what I am doing on the golf course and get better results again.

“My boys where delighted when I won and it was fantastic to see them when I got back home. They mean the world to me and to make them proud and give them something else to be happy about means an awful lot to me.

“I know I have a long way to go and I am relishing the challenge again. It’s what I do.”

(Darren Clarke was speaking ahead of The Players' Championship, exclusively live on Setanta Golf and Setanta Sports 1 on May 8-11. www.setanta.com)