By Brian Keogh
Darren Clarke discovered the painful side of being a single dad last week when he was tackled from behind by his eldest son in a ‘friendly’ back garden football match.
The Dungannon man joked that that he gave Conor, 8, “the red card” for a two footed challenge from behind that has left him needing treatment on a niggling hamstring injury.
But Clarke, 38, admitted that while raising his two children alone is a huge challenge, he has to have patience if he is to regain is place at golf’s top table.
Speaking the official opening of his exclusive Champions Club design at Moyvalley in Kildare, the Irish ace hopes to kick-start his climb back to the top at this week’s Spanish Open in Madrid - the first of five events on the spin.
Clarke said: “It is difficult. It's very hard. I am basically trying to be more careful with my timing and the time that I spend with the boys.
“I am going and practising as much as I want to, but I’m also making sure I spend time with them as well. So, it is a pretty fine line and one that I am still adjusting to a bit.”
Clarke got to spend a few extra days with Conor and Tyrone, 6, in the Bahamas earlier this month when he missed the halfway cut in the Masters at Augusta.
But that was the only upside to another mixed week on the golf course that he hopes to put right by playing five events in a row for the first time in several seasons.
Languishing at 69th in the world rankings, Clarke added: “When I get weeks like that, when I am away with them and spend time with them, then that makes up for a lot. But it is very hard to get the right balance.”
“I’ve just got to get used to it because it’s not going to change. I’m fine but it’s difficult at times.
“I bring them with me as much as I can but I’m not going to take them out of school. I’m trying to spend as much time with them as I can. They’re doing okay.
“I want to go out and start playing the way I know I can at the minute but what can I do about it?
“I’ve got to be understanding of why I am in that position at the minute. It’d be very easy to get down on myself but that’s not going to achieve anything either. I’ve got to go and play now.
“I’m getting into more of a routine with the boys now and getting used to things. The golf has taken a back seat somewhat to do that. I didn’t have a choice. My kids were going to come before anything.
“Yes it’s disappointing to be down wherever I am in the world at the minute, I haven’t checked, but I am determined to get back into top form again and get back up the rankings again.
“So far I haven’t been able to do anything about it for those reasons. I’ll look out for the boys first and hopefully sort out my golf afterwards.”
Clarke still lives near London but revealed that he is toying with the idea of a move to Manchester and “starting afresh.”
For the moment he is busy nursing his “football injury” and preparing for a run of events that he hopes will help him play himself back into form.
Referring to his injury, Clarke said: “Conor did a two-footed tackle on me playing football in the back garden on Thursday. He's definitely got a red card. I sent him off straight afterwards.
“I fell and pulled a muscle at the top of my hamstring. I've been icing it. I went to Queenwood on Friday morning and played three holes and had to walk off. I couldn't play.
“But then I played on Saturday up at Bushfoot near home in Portrush and it wasn't too bad. It was sore again this morning, but I'll be alright.”
Excited about the prospect of playing five events in a row - the Spanish Open, Wachovia Championship, Players Championship, Irish Open and BMW PGA Championship - Clarke believes that all he needs is time to jump up from 69th in the world rankings to his usual place in the top 20.
But he’s also looking forward to taking the tips he’s been given by coach David Leadbetter from the practice range to the golf course.
He said: “I can't remember the last time I played five in a row. It's a long time ago now but I need to play. I need to compete and I want to play. I am excited about getting back.
“I haven't seen David since Augusta, obviously, but I am working away, hitting a lot of balls. The second day at Augusta I played really well so I am just looking forward to getting back out again and putting some scores together.”
Clarke shot a career-worst 83 in the first round at Augusta but followed that with a 71 that has given him hope that he is on the right track with his swing.
He said: “I probably should have made the cut at Augusta with what was going on. But I played really well so I am looking forward to competing again.
“What’s been missing? It is playing tournaments. I have been playing the odd week here and there and it is difficult to get any momentum going.
“I can't try and force it. It just hasn't been there. I have just got to try and play through it and we'll see.”
Clarke is delighted with the new-look Irish Open format and the decision to drop the title sponsor.
But he’s also determined to make up for the disappointment of losing the title to pal Thomas Bjorn at Carton House last season by making a bid for his first Irish Open from May 17-20.
He said: “It’s THE Irish Open again. Brilliant. That’s fantastic. Obviously we all need our sponsors but for the Irish Open to go back to being THE Irish Open is absolutely fantastic.
“Why? Because it’s a big tournament. To me it’s a big tournament and one I dearly want to win. Sponsors are great but THE Irish Open sounds better than whatever Irish Open.
“It was disappointing that I didn't win last year. I had a chance and didn't quite finish it off. It was disappointing but that's what I did quite a few times last year.
“Hopefully I can play a little bit better this year. I would desperately like to win it. So we shall see.”
As things stand, Clarke may yet have to pre-qualify for the US Open at Oakmont in June, if he remains outside the world’s top 50.
He said: “If I do have to qualify, then that's fine. I'll go and try and qualify. I have got to do what I have got to do. Michael Campbell won a few years ago after qualifying so it is not all that..... Wherever it is, I'll go and play.”
Membership of the Champions Club at Moyvalley was originally set at €70,000 but a new preferential share scheme was launched yesterday with the first 50 memberships going for €25,000 and an annual subscription of €3,500.
No professional events are scheduled just yet, but Clarke reckons the 7,370 yard course is ready to take on all comers.
He said: “Certainly it’ll be a stern enough test to hold tournaments. Off the back tees it’s going to be very long and a very tough test.”