Clarke plays captaincy waiting game

Darren Clarke. Picture Eoin Clarke, 5th September 2014

Darren Clarke will be whispering into a Sky Sports microphone rather than the ear of a European player at this week’s Ryder Cup. But whether his absence from the European inner sanctum at Gleneagles is a sign that he’s lost impetus in the race to succeed Paul McGinley as captain in Hazeltine in 2016 remains to be seen.

That there is no love lost between McGinley and Clarke following the fraught, behind the scenes politicking for the 2014 job — described by Des Smyth at the time as utterly failing “the smell test” — is an open secret.

European Tour chief executive George O’Grady described the goings-on in the winter of 2012 as “unseemly” and the upshot is that the selection process has now been changed.

Rather than a vote of the European Tour Players Committee, the 2016 skipper will be decided by the three immediate past captains — Colin Montgomerie, José María Olazábal and McGinley — the chief executive and the chairman of the Players Committee, who is currently Thomas Bjorn.

The days of the captaincy being seen as a testimonial reward for a great career died at Valhalla in 2008 with Nick Faldo’s ill-fated campaign and a new era of player power ushered in two years ago when Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and others came out publicly for McGinley as the “best man for the job.”

Clarke may well be that man but he has rivals that include Bjorn, Miguel Ángel Jiménez and Pádraig Harrington, who are all in McGinley’s support network in Scotland.

The Dungannon native, 46, certainly bristles at the thought that he somehow tried to undermine McGinley’s candidacy by suggesting at the time that Europe might need a man of major stature to stand up to Tom Watson. 

That he did it at a time when Colin Montgomerie’s name was widely mentioned did not go unnoticed but he’s certainly rowing in behind his former stablemate now. The Ryder Cup is like that.

“I have no issue with Paul whatsoever,” Clarke says. “Paul is very statistically minded. He’ll know every player’s strength and the area of the game where they’re maybe not quite so strong.

“He will leave no stone unturned, he will be a fantastic captain. He’s got the respect of all the players, I know he’s been talking a lot to all his players. And whenever he gets them all together for the first team meeting, the first team talk, he’ll put everybody at ease. I’m sure Paul will do everything brilliantly well during the week.”

Clarke is immensely popular in the United States and while winning the 2011 Open Championship is his greatest individual achievement, his emotionally charged performance at The K Club 2006 just weeks after the death of his first wife Heather, is regarded as one of the greatest Ryder Cup performances of all time.

Naturally for a player who has featured in five Ryder Cups, he would jump at the chance to be captain with America in 2016 rather than Paris in 2018 looking the better fit.

“Yeah, well, if they were to offer me the job I would certainly not be picky as to when it would be. It would be too big an honour to differentiate between doing it in America or doing it in Europe,” he says.

“But certainly I’ve always been fortunate throughout my career I seem to have been quite popular with the American fans, they have always been very, very good to me, very kind to me over there.

“Wherever, I just hope at some stage that they do ask me to have the ultimate honour and be Ryder Cup captain.”

As for this week’s hostilities, Clarke believes it going to be “very, very close” with Europe favourites and “rightly so.”

For Clarke, Rory McIlroy has the stature and the game to be Europe’s key player and ready to step into the leader’s role.

“He’s Tiger-esque as well, anybody would want him on their team,” Clarke says of the world No 1. “Is he ready to be the European talisman a la Monty? I think he’s getting that way. So wherever Paul puts him he will get Europe points.

“Would I send Rory out first? I would send him out wherever he wanted to go out.”

The Claret Jug apart, nothing means more to Clarke than the Ryder Cup. Indeed, that performance at The K Club, especially that tee shot on the opening morning, arguably prepared him for winning The Open.

“The utmost pressure I have felt, in my whole career playing golf, was the first tee at the K Club. Anything subsequent to that, was never going to be as nerve wracking, as pressurised as what that was.

“I went through my routine and I still had no idea if I was going to top it, duff it, or hit it sideways, I had no idea. Thankfully it went straight down the middle, but you know routine is what we all go back to when we are under pressure.”

Clarke does not believe that a sixth European win in seven matches this week would be damaging to the competition as a whole.

“I’ve heard that mentioned, but I don’t think so,” he says. “Obviously as a European, I want another European victory, without doubt. Europe have been very, very strong this past period, and you wouldn’t say they’ve had lucky wins. Maybe Medinah was a win that was unexpected, but Europe have been very strong and that’s the way it goes.

“It’s cyclical and as the event has grown Europe seems to have gotten stronger. They perform better, and if they win this one it’ll be six out of seven – will the Americans start to get a little bit annoyed with it, fed up with it? Yes they probably would.

“But at the end of the day it’s still the Ryder Cup, it’s still something that everybody wants to play in and be part of, and everybody wants to be part of a winning team. Because of that I don’t think it’ll ever lose of its importance.”

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