Oceanico pull out the stops

By Brian Keogh

Darren Clarke doesn’t do things by halves. And neither does Gerry Fagan, the Drogheda man behind a multi-million euro mega-deal that has made the Oceanico Group Portugal’s leading golf and property player.

While Clarke insisted that he is far from a spent force and can still challenge for Major honours, Fagan and his Oceanico co-founder Simon Burgess this week acquired all five courses at Vilamoura on Portugal’s sunny Algarve coast for a cool €125 million.

Not only that, Oceanico has also signed Clarke as Vilamoura’s touring professional for the next three years, seeing him as the ideal man to promote a golf and property portfolio estimated at more than €2 billion.

But while Oceanico basked in the glory of its acquisition of the Old Course, Victoria, Pinhal, Millennium and Laguna from long-time golf toursim leader Lusotur Golfes, Clarke took stock of his current slide to 51st in the world and warned his critics to write him off at their peril.

Without a significant win since the 2003 NEC Invitational, the 38-year-old Dungannon man is wounded by suggestions that his first round exit from the WGC - Accenture World Match Play in Arizona last week brought him a step closer to the end in an era of young guns.

“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,” Clarke said at Victoria Clube de Golf, where he will play next October’s Portugal Masters on the European Tour as part of his Oceanico deal.

“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.”

Like it or not, Clarke needs a good performance in next week’s Singapore Masters to qualify for the WGC - CA Championship at Doral in Florida from March 22-25..

Yet he insisted: “Do think it’s going to bother me if I’m not in Miami. Do you really think it’s going to bother me?

“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. If I keep doing the work that I am doing and I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine.”

Clarke has had to deal publicly with the nightmare of losing his wife Heather to cancer just last August, though he refuses to blame that tragedy for his failure to win a major championship in the four years since her illness was first diagnosed.

What’s more, this is not a comeback season, whatever others might think.

“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,” said Clarke, whose best finish so far this season is a share of 20th place in Dubai.

“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.

“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.”

Defeat to Sergio Garcia in the first round in Tucson last week was “most definitely” worthwhile as it allowed Clarke the rugby fan to see Ireland’s record win over England at Croke Park.

“I was there last Saturday, it was fan-tastic,” he beamed. “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.”

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” that he can still win a Major at 38?

“I have no reason not to believe that at all,” he said.

The deal with Oceanico is something that “excites” Clarke - and with good reason.

The Vilamoura buy out is a major part of Oceanico’s plans to create a Pinehurst style facility in southern Europe.

The five Vilamoura courses attracted over 200,000 players in 2006, returning profits of €6 million.

But Fagan and Burgess believe that they can improve dramatically on those figures over the next few years.

The company is in the process of building a luxury Amendoeira golf resort in nearby Silves, which features stunning courses by Nick Faldo and Christy O’Connor Jnr, is set to open for light play in the summer of 2008. It also plans to invest around €700 million in new investments in the Azores over the next seven years.

Fagan said: “We carefully studied the market worldwide and contend that the Pinehurst model in North Carolina was the on to emulate. Vilamoura has many more attributes to offer beyond the Pinehurst model.

“We will shortly be in possession of one of the best development sits in Vilamoura - 170 acres - which will be a mixed development of 702 units which is a complementary to our purchase of the golf courses.”

The low density development, with landscaping by TV garden designer Diarmuid Gavin, will give clients access to all seven Algarve courses as part of the purchase.