BUILDING on the foundations of Europe’s historic Gleneagles triumph two years ago, Darren Clarke is preparing to lead his Ryder Cup team to glory at Hazeltine, Minnesota, at the end of September.
Clarke, who is the first Ulsterman to captain The Ryder Cup team, was not involved in the 2014 triumph but he will be reliving Ryder Cup memories at Castle Stuart, where he will be joined by three of his vice captains and potential squad members at the 2016 Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open.
Clarke is enjoying his captaincy and can look back on so many epic encounters with America. “Winning the Open in 2011 was obviously a very personal thing,” said Clarke, “but having the honour of being Captain in The Ryder Cup is a team thing. I’m only here to try and help the players. But, in saying that, it’s a huge honour.
“The Ryder Cup has been special to me for so long and, obviously, it’s part of my golfing career. To be given this opportunity is very, very special to me and it means a great deal.
“This game has been very good to me, although I’ve had my ups and I’ve had my downs. But, in general, it’s been very good to me. The Ryder Cup has been a huge part of my life and my golfing career. I’ve been fortunate enough to play both home and away. They are different events. When you’re on home soil the supporters are partisan, that’s what you expect. They get behind the home team and that’s all part and parcel of The Ryder Cup, even more so in recent years. The noise has been getting louder and louder. That creates a great atmosphere.
“Most of our prospective team, and indeed the players who triumphed at Gleneagles, live and play in America, as well. So the fans are maybe a little more used to them in the United States.
“But the cheers of the fans makes a big difference. It’s still 12 guys against 12 guys playing matchplay so anybody can win. That’s just the format of professional golf but home advantage has to be taken into consideration.”
The 14-time European Tour winner has had a memorable alliance with The Ryder Cup. He made his debut in 1997 at Valderrama in Spain under Captain Seve Ballesteros, partnering Colin Montgomerie to defeat Fred Couples and current USA Captain, Davis Love III, in the fourballs, before losing narrowly to Phil Mickelson in the singles.
He then contributed two points at each of the next two Ryder Cups, at Brookline in 1999 and The Belfry in 2002, and delivered 3½ points in Europe’s record 18½-9½ victory at Oakland Hills Country Club in 2004.
But Clarke’s most memorable, and emotional, Ryder Cup performance came two years later when he inspired Europe to victory by the same record-equaling margin in front of the passionate Irish galleries at The K Club, just six weeks after his first wife, Heather, passed away.
Clarke won all three of his matches in Co. Kildare, joining forces with Lee Westwood to defeat Mickelson and Chris DiMarco, and then Tiger Woods and Jim Fuyrk in the fourballs, before beating Zach Johnson 3 and 2 in the singles.
His two victories earned with Westwood mean the duo are joint second in the all-time list of most successful Ryder Cup partnerships, with six points from their eight matches together, while, overall, Clarke has contributed a total of 11½ points in the blue of Europe. His captaincy role means that he has not played as much golf as he would have liked this season, but he made the cut in his last appearance, in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Hosted by the Rory Foundation.
“Because I’m not playing that much competitive golf, I’m making silly mistakes but that’s to be expected,” he said. “But I’m fortunate to be Ryder Cup Captain and that’s much more important than my own golf right now. My heart and soul is going into The Ryder Cup and my own golf comes second at the moment. If I happen to play half-decent golf, that’s a bonus.”
Clarke will still be competing to win the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open title for the first time this weekend to add to his silverware collection. This will be the 22nd time he has competed in this event, dating back to 1992 when he finished 71st as a 24 year old. He has had seven top-10 finishes, with the most memorable being in 2010 when he was runner-up to Edoardo Molinari.
This week he will be among old friends who will be helping him at Hazeltine. Paul Lawrie, Padraig Harrington and 1996 Scottish Open winner Thomas Bjørn are Clarke’s vice captains, whilst thefourth member of his backroom team, Ian Poulter, continues his recovery from injury
Clarke will use all his expertise and experience to do everything possible to continue Europe’s winning streak, and there has been talk of one of the most motivational and passionate managers in football playing a part.
Following the lead of his predecessor Paul McGinley, who invited former Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, to address his team two years ago, Clarke is keen to consult Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp.
“Jurgen is definitely one of the guys I want to speak to, especially as I’m a Liverpool fan myself. He’s an absolute livewire, isn’t he? He’s a bundle of energy, and that sort of attitude can be infectious.”
Clarke will certainly leave no stone unturned in his bid for Ryder Cup glory at Hazeltine, and apart from his own performance this week he will be just as concerned about the form of the many stars at Castle Stuart Links and achieve their goal of Ryder Cup glory. n