Clarke prepared to ride his luck as rookie skipper
Darren Clarke

Darren Clarke

Darren Clarke admits that his lack of experience as a skipper will leave him heading into the unknown at Hazeltine in 19 months’ time.

Paul McGinley had two successful Seve Trophy captaincies under his belt before leading the troops to an eighth win in 10 matches at Gleneagles last September.

And Clarke could only hold his hands up and hope that he is as successful as the last two men to lead Europe without having pulled on the captain’s armband at any level — Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam.

“They both did okay, didn't they,” Clarke said, recalling those record, nine-point wins at Oakland Hills in 2004 and The K Club in 2006.

If Clarke’s close pal Davis Love III is, as expected, handed a second bite of the cherry next Tuesday and the chance to avenge the Miracle at Medinah, the 46-year old Dungannon man will be facing not just a hostile American crowd that’s desperate for its first success since 2008, but also a friend who will have learnt much from the mistakes of 2012.

But having expressed his gratitude to the five-strong “Panel” for selecting him and his pride at being handed the honour, Clarke could only hope that his vast experience as a Ryder Cup player, not to mention those vice-captaincies at Celtic Manor in 2010 and Medinah in 2012, will stand him in good stead.

“Is it a big advantage?” he said of previous captaincy experience. “I don't know, I couldn't tell you. I will find out. I will glean as much information as I can and do the best job I can.”

His first task will be to pick the brains of past captains such as Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazábal and McGinley — “I’ve got big shoes to fill,” Clarke said — though the Dubliner has already made it plain that he won’t be returning to the team room as a vice-captain.

Clarke has no plans to revolutionise the European approach, saying that would be "stupid."

"You guys all know how good a job that Paul did at Gleneagles and how successful that whole event was, I think it would be very silly to move away from that," he said on a conference call. "It was so successful:  The team bonding was unbelievable, and Paul's role in thing would figure in all that; it would be stupid of me to move away from that. 

"I will obviously consult with other past captains, as well, and try and get as much information as I can to what was successful.  But I think the way Paul did things the last time at Gleneagles, it will be tough to get it any better than that."

There was a suggestion that Clarke and McGinley had already spoken — albeit briefly — but  he could not lie.

“Regarding sitting down with Paul, I haven't sat down with Paul yet because I didn't want to appear as if I was affecting anything to do with the outcome [of the vote]. It was a totally impartial thing," Clarke said. “But moving forward, then yes, I do plan to sit down with a lot of the captains, obviously especially Paul because he was so successful the last time at Gleneagles.

“I think I would be foolish not to realise that With the run that Europe have been on, it's exceptional. We are going for our fourth straight win. That hasn't been done before. But with the players that we have at our disposal, I think it's definitely an achievable feat. 

“It will be difficult going to America, I have no qualms about that. The home crowd always makes the difference.  Medinah was very special, the way the guys performed on Sunday, doing what they did, coming back from where they did. But yeah, I would expect a very, very stern test from America, as it always is.”

Having played in five Ryder Cups, winning four, and won two World Golf Championship on US soil before claiming The Open at Sandwich in 2011, the Ryder Cup captaincy will cap a glorious career for Clarke.

European Tour CEO George O’Grady — a member of the five-strong selection panel alongside Players Committee representative David Howell and immediate past captains McGinley, Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Mongtomerie — said the decision was unanimous.

“It was Darren’s time,” O”Grady said, revealing that he didn’t have to cast his vote.

The selection panel  considered Miguel Angel Jimenez and Thomas Bjorn but as McGinley explained afterwards, the backing of up to nine of the 2014 team, including fellow Ulstermen Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, proved to be the clincher.

“He's a great choice to be captain,” McIlroy said in an interview recorded by the BBC in Dubai a few weeks ago, such was the confidence in the result of Wednesday's meeting. “Everyone in America loves him as well. I think he's got a great rapport over there with the fan base and will be really well received. I couldn't think of a better guy to play under in 2016."

McDowell reckons Clarke has the personality to build on the work of his predecessors, explaining in Dubai: “I think it's a phenomenal choice. He's certainly beloved in the US, the fans love him out there and he’s got the kind of character to carry himself well enough with the media but more importantly to execute a good leadership role within the team room. 

“If he is anything like Paul McGinley in the team room he will do a phenomenal job. Paul certainly took the European template and sharpened it and made it better. I think Darren has the ability to take on that role and execute that role within the team room. 

“I think it's going to be a very exciting Ryder Cup in 2016. There's going to be a lot of pressure on the Americans and it will be a great one to win and I am sure Darren is going to want to win it. I think the Ryder Cup is very deserving on his resume. He'll do a great job.” 

Past captains Tony Jacklin, Bernard Gallacher, Sam Torrance, Montgomerie and McGinley all gave Clarke their blessing. Montgomerie made a point of emphasising Clarke's ability to bond with his players and communicate. Clarke spoke of his potential team members as "friends."

As for McGinley, his advice to Clarke was to forget about his predecessors and make the role his own.

“It is hard to say what kind of captain he will be, he has never been a captain before though he’s been a vice captain twice," McGinley said. "It is a big learning curve for him but I am sure he will enjoy every moment of the next two years and will do a very good job and represent us well. 

"He will bring his personality to it and the best advice I can give is just be yourself and do what you believe to be right. It is not necessarily following me or Jose or Monty but to do what's best for him and how he sees it.”

Clarke was said to have had the public backing of the majority  the winning 2014 side but he still confessed that he'd had a nervous wait in South Africa after his morning practice round alongside is son Tyrone ahead of the Dimension Data Pro-Am at Fancourt:

"I played 18 holes quickly with Tyrone this morning on one of the golf courses that we have down here and came back again and was resting a little bit beside Alison and Tyrone waiting for the news.  It was a very long couple of hours.
"Was I expecting it?  No, I wasn't, because I didn't know what way the committee was going to vote.  Was I hoping it was going to me?  Then yes, obviously.  But I was obviously delighted when the call came through and they asked me to be Ryder Cup Captain.
"I was with Alison and Tyrone, and obviously they were. Alison was as uptight as I was and Tyrone was just chilling and relaxing.  So obviously I was over the moon, as they were, too." 

There was some frustration in the European camp after Gleneagles that the Americans (and the Task Force) were blaming Tom Watson for their defeat rather and admitting that they had under-estimated the enemy.

Clarke, like McGinley, is a canny communicator and even if he believes that were true, he wasn't saying.

"I don't know that.  I'm not in their task force so I can't answer that.  But from our point of view, we have a lot of players, The European Tour, in the top of the World Rankings and very, very strong players.  Whether they are thought of with much respect or not, I would imagine that they do.  But in 18 holes of match play, anybody can beat anybody. 
But the team gelling and stuff from the European point of view seems to be a little stronger than it is for the Americans.  Can you point your finger on why so successful?  Not really.  It's just the way it goes.  The Ryder Cup is typical.  Europe are on a good run and I hope that run continues. 

His Ryder Cup journey has been a storied one, beginning with a strained reationship wit Seve Ballesteros at Valderrama in 1997. A loser at Brookline in 1999, he was a key player in 2002 and again in Detroit in 2004, when he halved an epic singles with Love.

His last appearance came in emotional circumstances at The K Club in 2006, where he won three points out of three just weeks after his first wife, Heather, had lost her battle with breast cancer.

Tiger Woods was a good friend to Clarke around that time and the Ulsterman remembered the struggling American icon yesterday.

Having admitted that his own struggles "might actually be a blessing in disguise" when it comes to preparing for Hazeltine — "it will take my mind away from practising too hard and I'll have a lot of things to focus on — he sounded genuinely keen to face a USA side with Woods in its ranks.

"Oh, I think everybody would, wouldn't they.  Tiger is still one of the biggest draws in the game of golf.  He's a very special talent.  And I, for one, being not only a friend of his, but I have a huge amount of respect for his golf game, would love to see him getting back to playing the sort of golf that he can play.
"I think Tiger Woods on the team at Hazeltine would be a stronger team with him being on it.  You know, you want to go and compete against the strongest team possible, and a healthy Tiger Woods playing his best golf would certainly add to the whole event." 

What Clarke's appointment means for Pádraig Harrington's captaincy prospects remains to be seen. Three Irish captains in a row would be a little too much like that joke about waiting an age for a bus only to have three to arrive at the same time. Bjorn or Jiménez in Paris and Harrington on the Irish Course at Whistling Straits in 2020 sounds more logical.

That a boy from the fertile fields of Dungannon is heading for the wide open spaces of Minnesota feels just about right.