Clarke finds his happy place

Darren Clarke admits he’s a reformed character from the firebrand who tried and failed to bring Whistling Straits to its knees exactly six years ago.

The once volcanic Ulsterman, who turns 42 on Saturday, blasted a seven under 65 to grab the first round lead in the 2004 US PGA only to slither out of the picture in another major flop.

The disappointment of that week faded into total insignificance as he tragically lost his wife Heather to breast cancer four years ago.

Since then he’s been battling to rebuild his shattered family life and his career and he’s hoping that the cards are finally going to fall his way this week as he makes a last gasp bid for a sixth Ryder Cup cap.

Reflecting on the long and winding raod that has taken him to the shores of Lake Michigan this week, Clarke said: “I am just allegedly older and allegedly wiser. But then you take what life throws at you and you deal with it the best you can.

“We all get some rough cards dealt to us now and then and you just do as well as you can, and that’s the way it is.

“I am not going to portray myself as a man who’s a saint with no regrets. Everybody has regrets. I’ve done all sorts of different things but you have got to do your best, play the hand you’re dealt and see how you get on.”

The Ulsterman’s inner circle is amazed at the transformation in Clarke’s character since he found new love with former Miss Northern Ireland Alison Campbell and decided move back home to Portrush.

“I was saying to Chubby Chandler driving down here that Darren seems to be the happiest he has been for a long time,” said Rory McIlroy. “He has a really lovely girlfriend in Alison and the kids are looking forward to getting back to Northern Ireland as well. He’s just in a really good place.”

Clarke will never be able to play in the US PGA without being reminded of the greatest sadness of his life as tomorrow (Friday) is the fourth anniversary of his wife’s death.

But his new-found happiness has given him perspective on life and renewed his desire to get back to the top of the game.

He’s playing good golf again after two years in the wilderness and while family comes first, he’s keener than ever to prove that he’s not finished as a competitive animal.

“Golf is still right up there,” he said of his priorities. “I’m still the same - still as mad and determined as ever.

“I crave success as much as I ever have done, if not more. But I am much more patient that I have ever been. Much more.”

After nearly 20 years in London, Clarke didn’t know he missed home so much until he returned to the province this year.

“After the Irish Open, I drove home from Killarney, dropped Alison home in Belfast and went on up to Portrush. I stayed with my sister Andrea and her husband, who were looking after my boys Conor and Tyrone. And the four kids went out to play golf on Monday at Bushfoot.

“I walked around with them in my jeans with my trainers on. Watched them play nine holes with a pint of Guinness and wandered round. I wouldn’t be able to do that in London. It was great.”

Clarke admits that his performance at Whistling Straits will depend on his luck with the putter. But he can accept almost anything the game throws at him now and reckons his links upbringing could give him an edge if the wind blows.

“It’s not really a links course but if the wind blows it will blow like it does at a links, so you need to be able to knock the ball down,” he said. “That might give some of us an edge.”