By Brian Keogh
Darren Clarke is about to begin a four-week ‘home’ run that could signal the end of his year-long golfing nightmare.
But pal Padraig Harrington insists that the larger-than-life Ulsterman will only turn the corner when he learns how to selfishly separate family life from the cut-throat world inside the ropes.
The past 12 months have been hugely contrasting for Ireland’s 'Big Two' with world No 142 Clarke following his gigantic Ryder Cup performance with a series of massive disappointments on the golf course.
Harrington, on the other hand, had a discreet week at The K Club before going on to win the Order of Merit, defeat Tiger Woods in Japan and then knock off the Irish Open and his first major in the space of a few months to become world No 6.
No matter how many managers, psychologists and swing coaches he may have, a golfer’s wife or partner is arguably his greatest asset.
At least, that’s what Open champion Harrington firmly believes. And he admits that he cannot imagine what pal Darren has had to endure since Heather Clarke passed away.
Clarke’s life as a single dad to two young boys has not mixed well with the unforgiving, pressure cooker environment of professional golf.
Add to that the sky-high expectations that have been heaped on Clarke’s broad shoulders because of his massive natural talent and you have a recipe for disaster.
Reflecting on what might lie ahead for the Dungannon man, Harrington said: “Darren has always been incredibly talented and had so much potential. And in some ways that has actually been a noose around his neck.
“It has been a bit of a burden for him at times to try and live up to people's expectations. Because people's expectations are always so much higher than your own.
“They push it out there and put a bit of pressure on your game. It is one of those things that you have to take a professional attitude to and deal with it.
“He has gradually got to build it up again. That is what I would see. Get back to a place where he is very comfortable and gradually build up from there.”
Next week’s Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles signals the start of a four-week European Tour run for Clarke that could prove vital.
Playing on familiar territory should bring out the best in Clarke’s game and he will have high hopes of shining at the Omega European Masters in Switzerland and the new Mercedes-Benz Championship in Cologne before before he arrives at the Belfry for the Quinn Direct British Masters on the first anniversary of his 2006 Ryder Cup heroics.
Clarke won three matches out of three that week in one of the greatest golfing performances under pressure of all time.
Recalling that week, Harrington said: “Darren obviously came into the team and it was a difficult time for him. But it was also a difficult time for the rest of the team, because we all knew Heather and in past Ryder Cups she was very much part of the team.
“She was incredibly vibrant at Oakland Hills in 2004 and very much part of everything, and then she was gone. It is all very evident now when we look at the photo albums and you see a picture of the 2004 Ryder Cup and Heather is in it. And then all of a sudden, in 2006, she is not.
“There was an effect on everybody. There were very few people in that team who wouldn't have known Heather. Thinking about it in a selfish way, she helped the team move a little closer together and bond that bit more.
“It helped that the team had a focus, we were all there it support Darren and that he had friends that were genuinely behind him. I think that makes a big difference.
“Unfortunately, it was impossible for that to be carried on. The cold reality of it was that Darren would have felt very alone after the Ryder Cup.
“During it, he was part of something. After it, he was back to the reality that he didn't have team mates. His wife wasn't there. As I will tell anybody, your greatest supporter is your wife.
“We are very competitive out here. We even compete with our friends. So the only people who truly care are your close friends and your family. Darren obviously lost that support and it is difficult to play golf without it and not having it is a problem.
“Initially that would be the issue. And then it is compounded afterwards by the fact that while I know his kids distract him, you are not having those conversations during the year when you know you are getting the true support that you need.
“Only someone as close as your wife or very, very close friends can give you this support. I think, his golf has obviously been affected by the enormity of the situation and he needs to establish separation between grieving and public grieving, which is the hardest thing.
“I am sure Darren is like the rest of us, especially the Irish. We like things to be private and his is very public. And that's always a lot harder when it is in the spotlight. He needs to find that separation now.
“When he goes playing golf, he has to somehow separate it from that element of his life, the family element, and get out there and treat is as a totally independent event. Now that is difficult to do and you certainly wouldn't expect anybody to do it in the short term.
“But in the long term his objective has to be to get out and play golf for the sake of playing golf. But it is hard to separate it from Heather because I am sure that every time he played golf before, he would have talked to his wife afterwards about it. Now he hasn't got that same conversation.
“And it is not the same, even talking to your close buddies. It is not the same as talking to somebody who is genuinely a 100 percent supporter. She is the person who will encourage you or give you a kick up the backside when you need it. And obviously he has missed both of those things.
“I don't think it is tough for him to come back from this. I do think it is tough to come back, and I do believe he will come back from this. But I think he will do it once he separates that part of his life from his golf.”
Clarke’s larger-than-life image is what makes him so attractive to fans and sponsors.
But in the wake of a family bereavement, it is a huge disadvantage and the Ulsterman’s large entourage will never fill the gap in his life or provide the support he needs to get back on the road to recovery.
Harrington added: “It does have an effect that Darren is a vivacious kind of person and is down to earth and loud and colourful. And when something like this happens, you want to shield yourself away from exposure. So it is a difficult part of it for him, the public aspect.
“It is like when my dad passed away, which is nowhere near the same and I wouldn't even compare it to a spouse passing away. The public bit is the hardest bit of it. We don't like explaining our emotions and being asked about it in a public sense.
“It is not a very easy thing to deal with hit. And he doesn't have his wife to help him. But he has to find a separation between playing golf - his public life and his family life.
“It may seem selfish, but that is what he has to do. He has to get away from it but not in any shape or form forget about it. But somehow separate it from being out on the golf course. He can't be out on the golf course and not be affected by it.
“ He is worrying about where his kids are all the time. I know in my life, there are so many little things that I don't even know about or bother about because I know my wife is taking care of it.
“Now Darren has to run the whole show and make sure that the kids are doing well in school and that there are no problems. It could be as simple as organising the holidays. All those things are done by your wife. It is hard for him.
“The actual structure in terms of the organising of his life has totally changed, but somehow he has to get to a situation where he can get on the golf course and feel that it is a separate entity and not be bringing anything onto the golf course but playing golf.
“I played with Darren in Akron a few weeks ago and from what I saw his game was pretty similar to what I have seen over the years. There were highs and lows in it.
“He played some fantastic golf for periods of time and he played some poor golf. There were too many ups and downs in it for his own sake. He needed to approach it in a much more level way. But this is part of his life at the moment. And it is had to be on an even keel.”
Hopefully for Clarke, the next month will provide some much-needed results. A year after the toughest time of his life, things are about to get even tougher.