European captain Darren Clarke has played in five Ryder Cups, assisted as vice captain two other times and lost only once in those many years.
“Lots of memories, too many to mention,” he said. “The Ryder Cup has been a very special part of my career. I’ve been in lots of them and been around a lot of them. They’re all very, very different. Each one has their special moments.”
Well, there was this one …
Ten years ago this month, Clarke stood on the first tee at Ireland’s K Club, thunderous sound and raw emotion swirling all around him, last pairing off early that Friday morning representing Europe for the fifth, and turns out, final time at a Ryder Cup.
All of it only six weeks after his wife, Heather, died following a two-year fight with breast cancer.
He’d win the British Open five years later, but to this day Clarke remembers that morning against an American team captained by Tom Lehman as one unlike any other in his career.
“I didn’t know if I was going to miss it, top it, duff it, whiff it, shank it, hook it, block it, whatever, even with a driver,” he said. “I genuinely had no idea where the ball was going to go. I got lucky and made contact, and it went straight down the middle. That’s the most nervous I’ve ever been on a golf course. I have no idea how I managed to do that.”
By his own recollection, the ball traveled 320 yards down the fairway while the European crowd roared and playing partner Lee Westwood and Westwood’s caddie cried.
“He was in tears beside me,” Clarke said. “What was I supposed to do?”
The answer was, simply, play on.
He did so soon after Heather’s death both because she would have wanted him to do so and as a gesture to players from both the American and European sides who helped get him and his two young boys through such a difficult time.
Clarke won all three of his matches that weekend, pairing with Westwood and helping Europe beat the Americans for a third consecutive time in a victory Clarke remembers as all about team, not him.
Now Clarke and another 12-man team come to Hazeltine National Golf Club this week with Europe winners six of the past seven and eight of the past 10 times. Now he is a revered past Open champion and a Ryder Cup lifer who leads six first-time Ryder Cup players into a new world.
Remarried, to Alison Campbell, and with his boys now mostly grown, Clarke at age 48 is still as cheerful and opinionated as he ever was, but probably with a better fashion sense than he displayed in his younger days. In one of the countless decisions a Ryder Cup captain must make, he has outfitted his team with designs by luxury Italian clothing company Loro Piana.
“We’ll be well-dressed,” said European team star Rory McIlroy, who, like Clarke, grew up in Northern Ireland. “I’m looking forward to playing under Darren. He’s a fun-loving guy. … It’s going to be special for me to play under him because I’ve known Darren since I was 10 years old. For him to be a Ryder Cup captain and me to be playing for him is pretty cool.”
Clarke has surrounded himself with old friends Sam Torrance and Padraig Harrington and called upon Westwood as one of his three captain’s picks. Even U.S. captain Davis Love III is a longtime pal.
“It’s funny how you move on,” Clarke said. “Davis and his wife, Robin, they’ve been there for me a lot through the bits and pieces of my life. He’s delighted that I’m back, that I’ve got a wonderful wife again in my life, that the kids are happy. We have a lot of respect for each other.”
Ten years later, Clarke has moved on, but the memories of a shot more pressure-packed than even winning the British Open and all the love shown him for three days remain.
“That support, it helped me be the person I am today,” Clarke said. “Without it, I don’t know what would have happened. It was just a very, very special moment. I didn’t want to be there just for the sympathy. If I didn’t think I could contribute, I wouldn’t have gone. I did it for the team. Sometimes you get moments in a Ryder Cup when you have to stand up and be counted.”