By Brian Keogh
Darren Clarke has revealed how his year from hell has made him realise how lucky he really is.
And as he juggles his golfing struggles with life as a single father, the five-time Ryder Cup star now admits that as a pampered golf star he has not been living in the real world.
From time to time his sons Tyrone, 9, and Conor, 7, will burst into tears when they realise that their mother is no longer around.
And multi-millionaire Clarke has been forced to realise that reality is not about luxury cars and fine cigars but the daily grind of bringing up two young children.
Speaking to the former Scottish international John Huggan, he said: “The last three years have made me more philosophical. Professional golfers like me tend to forget how lucky we are to be doing what we do.
“I travel round the world playing golf. If I do it well, I make lots of money. And sometimes I have been guilty of forgetting that. I don’t live in the real world and I’m now the first to admit as much.”
Next week will mark exactly a year since Clarke buried the pain of his wife’s premature death from breast cancer deep inside him to tee it up for Europe as a Ryder Cup wildcard at The K Club.
He still doesn’t know how he managed to bomb his drive 300 yards down the middle, cream his second shot straight over the flag and drain that four foot putt to put Europe on the road to a record-equalling Ryder Cup success.
When it was all over and he had beaten Zach Johnson 3&2 in the singles, it was no surprise when he burst into tears as he hugged his long-standing caddie Billy Foster.
Grown men don’t cry, but Clarke has no regrets about his public show of emotions.
He revealed: “I couldn’t hang on at that stage. Irishmen aren’t supposed to cry at all, never mind in public in front of thousands of people. But that was the highlight of the week for me, standing on that 16th green.
“As I said at the time, I would not have accepted the invitation if I didn’t think I could help the team. Focusing on the Ryder Cup didn’t make anything any easier, but it gave me something to work towards after Heather passed away.”
Since that week, the cold, harsh reality of life without Heather has come crashing down on him with unrelenting force.
In less than a year, he has fallen from 20th to 169th in the world and is only playing in this week’s Mercedes-Benz Championship in Cologne, which is limited to this season’s tour winners and the top 60 from the Order of Merit, thanks to a sponsor’s invitation.
He said: “Last year I was swept along on a wave of emotion really. First when Heather was still there, then on the back of the Ryder Cup.
“After all that, the reality really hit me. But that is life and the way the cards have been dealt. So yes, I’ve lost Heather but I still have my two boys.
“They have good days and bad days. There are times when they just burst out crying and say they miss their mummy. I still have my down times too.
“While the support I have had from everyone is brilliant, when the door shuts on my bedroom at night I’m there looking at the walls on my own.
“It’s just hard. Everything. There are so many things I miss, large and small. Even not being able to lift the phone and have a good moan.
“I really miss the conversations late at night when I’m on the road. I even miss the arguments that every husband and wife have. So many things make me miss her.
“I have a hard time not feeling sad when I think of all the times we were together as a family, doing all the normal things families do.”
As things stand, he is not eligible for any of next year’s majoÚs and be unable to re-join the PGA Tour for another three years because he has not fulfilled his commitment to play the minimum 15 events required for membership.
Clarke has no problem with his American situation, conceding that the PGA Tour has been good to him in the past, giving him a special exemption two years ago when his wife was fighting to beat cancer.
His game has deserted him in recent months and it may take some time for him to come close to recapturing the form that saw him win two World Golf Championship events.
He said: “To say I have struggled is a bit of an understatement. It has been tough on the ego to play as badly. It’s been hard to pack up and go home on so many Friday nights after missing the cut.
“That’s not why I play golf. I play to contend and win tournaments. So, while there is an obvious reason for my struggles, that hasn’t made it any less painful.”
His closest friends are his manager Chubby Chandler and his Ryder Cup partner Lee Westwood.
But as Padraig Harrington knows, a man’s greatest supporter is his wife and Clarke has discovered that having millions in the bank doesn’t make the grieving process any easier.
Clarke said: “It’s been ridiculously difficult, as I’m sure anyone who has been in my position will attest to. It’s funny the way it gets you at times.
“It’s the way memories pop up when I’m in places we had been before. Sometimes it just hits me that I am where Heather had been or would be if she were still here. But time is really the only thing that is going to make it better.”
“It has changed me. I’m a lot more patient than I have ever been, although I’ve still got a bit to go in that direction. I’m definitely more tolerant too.
“Things that used to bother me just don’t now. Especially when I’m with the boys. I can’t afford to be going home in a mood about my golf. I can’t let them see any frustration in me, as that would be unfair to them.”
Harrington can’t imagine what Clarke is going through, pointing out that only your wife really cares about your golfing woes.
The Dubliner said: “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.
“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.”
Harrington and his wife Caroline remembered Heather Clarke’s anniversary on August 13 and sent flowers to her grave in Portrush.
It was a gesture that was greatly appreciated by Clarke, who took his boys to the graveyard just days after returning from the USPGA in Tulsa.
Clarke recalled: “It was all a bit much for me. But then, when August 13 did come around, it was almost as if a wee bit of weight was lifted off my shoulders.
“We all went up to the grave together. It’s not as if I shush anyone when Heather’s name comes up. The kids and I talk about her all the time. It would be wrong to exclude her name from conversation.
“In the car the other day Conor asked if I remembered when mummy was alive and we did this or that. That’s the way they talk. Sometimes I get a lump in my throat but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I want them to remember their mummy.
“I went up to the grave on my own for quite a bit of time late in the day. There were a lot of flowers, including a lovely big bouquet from Padraig and Caroline Harrington. I’ll never forget that gesture, it was just so nice of them to think of Heather.”