by Paul Mahoney
Darren Clarke is a master of disguise. His happy-go-lucky persona that has made him a people’s champion all over the world hides what really makes him tick. He’s a 47-year-old OCD workaholic worrier. The fear of failure drives him. He is loving his tenure as Ryder Cup captain, but he can’t stop thinking about it. September’s biennial clash with the Americans is even keeping him awake at night.
“I’m not quite what a lot of people think I am,” Clarke says. “I put an awful lot of effort in. I’m thinking about a lot of things right down to the smallest details. I wake up at night with ideas and write them down. Some of them are great and some are stupid. Probably the majority are stupid. I write everything down. Bits and pieces. In the notes page on my phone, too. There’s nothing more powerful than the written word. Information is king.
“There’s a lot of responsibility on the captain’s shoulders. A lot of things that will happen during the week will be down to my decisions. I don’t want to get them wrong. It’s a Catch 22. You can be the best captain in the world and lose or an awful captain and win. That goes with the territory.”
It would be no surprise if Clarke invited some special guests to inspire the team. He is a Liverpool fan so the guesses include Steven Gerrard and Kenny Dalglish as well as Ireland’s rugby captain Rory Best and even Liverpool’s great adversary, Sir Alex Ferguson.
“Got a few people whose words of wisdom wouldn’t go amiss,” he said. “I’m keeping it under my hat.”
Of course no captain in any sport is going to give away all their secrets but Clarke did reveal Europe’s mantra: “One unit. One team,” he says. “That’s the way we have to be. If we want to have a chance to win, we all have to be reading off the same script because they are going to be very strong. They are going to be loud. They are going to be patriotic. But that’s the Ryder Cup. Bring it on. We need a huge bond, a huge unity. You need it in every match, but in an away match maybe just that little bit extra.”
Clarke reveals that he had an idea when he was captain of the Europe team in January’s EurAsia Cup. He upgraded the status of the caddies. Instead of being segregated in their room, Clarke invited them all to share with the players.
“That helped us all feel as one,” he says. “In previous Ryder Cups, the caddies have been in the team room to a certain degree but have had their own place outside it, too. But my whole thought for Hazeltine is ‘One unit, one team’. Trying to figure out what is best for everybody is an art in itself.”
There are likely to be at least three English rookies on the team with Masters champion Danny Willett leading the new generation along with Matthew Fitzpatrick and Andy Sullivan. Justin Rose could be on babysitting duties. All of which leaves fans wondering whether stalwarts Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood will make the final 12. A clue to their importance came in the EurAsia Cup when Clarke picked them as wildcards as Europe thrashed Asia in Kuala Lumpur. Expect the Englishmen to be in Hazeltine as assistants at least. Both have shown a return to form – Poulter in Puerto Rico, Westwood in Augusta – but the message is clear. “Neither of them is going to get picked for the Ryder Cup because they played brilliantly in the EurAsia Cup.
“They are experienced and thrive on matchplay but, like anyone else, they need to qualify and if they fall outside the rankings, they are at the mercy of the captain’s picks. Because they are good mates of mine, does that mean I am going to pick them?” Clarke asks himself aloud in defiance of those that think that he might. “No,” he answers.
“The team and the Ryder Cup are bigger than picking mates. The people I end up picking will be players I think are going to add to the team in whatever way I see fit. So it’s not the old pals’ act some have suggested.”
Such has been Clarke’s obsession with, as Padraig Harrington says, “leaving no stone unturned”, the captain’s strokeplay day job has suffered as a result of his once-in-a-lifetime matchplay role. It has been five years since Clarke won the Open Championship at Royal St George’s.
“The way I’m playing at the moment, it feels like 20,” he says when reminded. “I’m working harder than ever. But I’ve been playing poorly because I’ve been trying so hard. And that would be one of my worries about the Ryder Cup. I want to do everything right but if I try too hard, I’m going to make more mistakes. It’s frustrating at the moment when I’m trying to balance things between my responsibilities as captain yet at the same time still trying to compete out here.”
So the Ryder Cup is messing up Clarke’s game. “It’s been messed up these past few years anyway. But it’s not helping it,” he says. “But I do not do mediocrity, nor do I do excuses. At the end of the day, it comes down to me.”
The hype for the Ryder Cup is about to be turned up another notch, as Clarke will bring the trophy to the Irish Open and the BMW PGA Championship this month. But despite his all-consuming desire to win, he is keen to exercise perspective on what is essentially a trivial pursuit.
“It is a massive sporting event but sometimes there is a little too much hype,” he says. “There’s a lot of pride and history and passion. And both teams will do their best. I have played on five Ryder Cups and been vice-captain in two and I’ve only been on one losing side – at Brookline in 1999. It’s a game of golf between Europe and America, it ain’t life or death.”