Rory will be sensational says Clarke

Darren Clarke is jaded from his whistlestop book signing tour on either side of the Irish Sea.

But the best-selling author, Ryder Cup hero and dedicated single dad peps up when you mention the name Rory McIlroy.

As Clarke prepares to give his sons Tyrone and Conor a memorable Christmas, the big man believes Santa is about to bring Irish golf a brand new superstar for 2007.

He’s not quite a father figure to the young Ulster kid, but at 38, Clarke has done it all in a 16-year tour career.

And that makes him the ideal man to assess the chances of the 17-year-old Holywood sensation on the pro tour in less that a year’s time.

Having cancelled all his media interviews after being mobbed at a two-hour signing session for his best-selling book, "Heroes All: My 2006 Ryder Cup Story" , Clarke still found time to pick up the phone to give his verdict on McIlroy and the toughest year of his life.

He said: "I think he is going to be sensational. He is as big a talent as I have seen for a very long time. He has his head screwed on. He knows exactly what he is doing and his record speaks for itself.

"There are not many Irish amateurs that have the record that he has. He has been capped for Ireland at every level. And he has successfully defended every championship he has ever won. That is a scary stat."

Clarke has come a long way since turned up in a £1,500 Hogo Boss cashmere overcoat to meet his future manager Chubby Chandler in 1989.

He was Ireland’s top amateur at the time but like McIlroy he only had eyes for the pro tour.

His career since then has been studded with golden moments, including two World Golf Championships, four Ryder Cup victories and millions of pounds in earnings on and off the course.

But his magnificent performances at the K Club pale in comparison to pain and heartbreak of watching his wife lose her long battle with breast cancer.

Golf is far from his mind right now as he plans to play father Christmas for his kids, his role as mentor to young McIlroy is something that keeps him going these days.

Dismissing fears for McIlroy in the big bad world of the professional game, Clarke said: "Rory has already played quite a few professional tournaments and he knows the story now. It is not as if he is going to come into this totally green.

"He has travelled around the world. He has won around the world. And if you take a look at what Tiger does, he travels around the world and he wins around the world.

"And travelling and playing on different grasses and at different places around the world is the best preparation you can possibly get. He has done all that and he has won all around the world. As far as I can see it is just a natural progression for him."

McIlroy is part of the generation who were just out of nappies when Woods first burst on the scene.

And Clarke is convinced that he has what it takes to get right to the top of the game, just as he has.

He added: "I didn’t ever think that I wasn’t going to make it and Rory is the same. He is confident that he will do it. And rightly so. He is that good.

"I don’t think he has anything to worry about. If he keeps working and being as dedicated as he is I think he’ll do very well."

Clarke has hardly had a free minute since he cried tears of joy and sadness on the K Club’s 16th green in September.

His thoughts are never far from his late wife and his young sons at home but he is reluctant to go too far down that road.

Having laid his soul bare in press conferences before and after the Ryder Cup, he has put it all in words in a book that is already one of the top-selling Christmas releases.

He said: "Even though it it my story, the big thing about the book is in the title, ‘Heroes All.’

"There was a lot of media attention on me and I wanted to to get across the fact that it was a team effort and it wasn’t all me."

Clarke’s performance and his incredible tee shot on the opening morning, will live long in Irish sporting lore.

But he denies that the moment of truth left him quaking in his boots, though it was easily the hardest shot of his career.

He said: "I wasn’t that terrified. It was just a pressurised situation and it was something that I was looking forward to and wasn’t looking forward to at the same time.

"Because of what had gone on and all the attention I had been receiving, it was going to be a very, very difficult time for me.

"It was more pressure than I have ever felt in anything. I can’t quantify it. It was completely different to any other sensation that I had ever had on the course, because of all that had gone on previous. It was a very, emotional, nervous moment for me. But I got through it."

The book details the camaraderie of the team room and the character that helped him through the immediate aftermath of his wife’s death and the most difficult three or four years of his life.

In it, he reveals that he had already been grieving for his wife before she eventually passed away just six weeks fore that fateful moment.

He revealed: "People who thought I had not grieved for long enough, seemed to have missed that, actually, I had been grieving for two years and not just since Heather had passed away.

"When the cancer came back, it was a very, very sad time for us. We had thought that she was doing okay after her previous operations.

"We believed that she had battled through and the worst was over. Unfortunately, that was not the case and it came back with a vengeance.

"We knew from that day that it was a time issue in terms of life expectancy. There would be no full remission. That's when the grieving started."

Apart from Tiger Woods, Clarke lists Westwood, Paul McGinley, Eoghan O’Connell and Harrington amongst his closest friends in difficult times.

With his responsibilities at home, Clarke says he has given the new FedEx Cup schedule in the US "100 percent zero thought" and has no idea where or when he will play next year.

But he has no doubt that new US Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger will be "fanastic" for the US in 2008.

He said: "Four picks is a bit of a radical change but I am sure he will get as strong a team as he possibly can.

"Is it panic stations? No, no, no. They are just trying to make the team stronger, which is totally understandable."

And with that he prepared to jet up to Belfast for another book-signing session before heading home to his family.