Darren Clarke: Open odyssey 2011

The Irishman at last won the Claret Jug this year... but then the 'what next?' factor kicked in. He tells James Corrigan how joy turned to frustration and how he's learning to reset his goals

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The Independent Online

The problem with lifelong dreams is they are invariably fulfilled in the middle of one's life and not at the end. What to do in the days, months, years and decades that follow? It is a conundrum Darren Clarke is still coming to terms with almost six months after he realised what everyone agreed was his destiny.

Certainly, he won't give up and wallow in the rich nostalgia of his achievement. Granted, he did spend Christmas Day with his fiancée and two sons watching a rerun of that wet and wild Sunday afternoon in July when he was crowned "Champion Golfer of the Year" at the 20th time of asking. But as he did so, with a fine claret in that finest of Claret Jugs, something would have gnawed away inside. "I now need to validate that Open victory," he says.

So much for fulfilment. If anything Clarke has become even more obsessed with delivering on his talent. "Royal St George's made me understand how winning a great prize like that can almost taunt you if you don't reach those standards every week," he says. It is fair to say that for the past few months, those golfing taunts have been merciless.

In the wake of his triumph, Clarke expressed his wish to bottle the serenity he displayed on the Kent coast. Alas, the vessel cracked and the recipe was lost – 2011 played out with a frantic urgency. Clarke became so demoralised with his form he was reluctant to be a part of the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year show. "Rory [McIlroy] will win it many times, but it is Luke [Donald] who really deserves it," so Clarke told The Independent. "What he did in winning both money lists was incredible. I'm not sure it will ever be done again."

Clarke sees Donald's consistency and swoons. The big man from Ulster isn't blessed with the uniformity of temperament to effect week-in, week-out excellence. Yet what he does have in his substantial armoury is the ability to put it all together for four days of glory. That has not deserted him, regardless how wretched the golfing hangover. Clarke must realise the Open has bought him the time to reprise the splendour.

"With that win, Darren made sure he has full-time employment for the next 12 years," says his manager, Chubby Chandler. "He is in all the majors for the next five years, I would imagine he will be Ryder Cup captain, and then he is exempt on the Seniors Tour until he is 55. That is a hugely comforting thought."

If only Clarke could feel so soothed. He sees the calendar from a more sinister angle. "I'm 43 and I have to accept that if I'm going to win another major it will have to be in the next year or so," he says. Hence what his coach calls the "must, must, must" instead of the "can, can, can". "The former puts pressure on you, while the latter gives you a calmness," says Pete Cowen. "The calmness is what Darren possessed at St George's in abundance."

The trouble is there's no switch to turn it on and off; sometimes things just happen. Clarke's efforts in realising an ambition most experts believed had been irrevocably shattered eventually came together like a jigsaw. Once in place, it was the image of the sporting year. As Clarke points out, it began with a single putt and a paltry £1,500 in the desert seven months earlier. That's all that separated Clarke and the young Italian Matteo Manassero.

"If I hadn't pipped Matteo to get into the top 30 of the Race To Dubai, which earned an automatic spot in the Open, then I would have had to go through qualifying and who knows what would have happened?" says Clarke.

"I knew coming into the Open I was playing OK, but I'd had a terrible final round in the Scottish Open the previous week," adds Clarke. "But I had a good session with Pete on the Tuesday morning." Cowen tells it differently. "After an hour or so, Darren was giving an exhibition, driver off the deck, that sort of thing," says the Yorkshireman. "He was hitting it great, but when he left me he said, 'Yeah, but I still can't bloody putt'."

It was at this moment when fate chose to play its hand once more. By chance, Clarke ran into Dr Bob Rotella, the sports psychologist he had employed previously in a garlanded career which had brought two WGC titles as well as Ryder Cup legend status. Clarke told the American of his frustrations on the green and the pair went to work. Rotella instructed Clarke "to putt like a child", "to stop thinking". Very soon a rhythm emerged, both on the greens and in his schedule.

"I'd leave Darren and Bob on the practice green 20 minutes before his tee off," says Chandler. "He also was working with Mike Finnegan that week. He must be the only champion who had two psychologists!"

Crazy, maybe, but nobody can say the ploy failed. Clarke smiled when others could only scowl, he accepted the breaks while the others fought for control. Here was the perfect example of how to tackle an uncompromising links. With patience, with control, with imagination.

"Just think, if I hadn't moved back to Portrush 18 months earlier I wouldn't have played all that links golf with my mates in conditions which made those at St George's seem pleasant," says Clarke. "That wasn't the reason I went back – I went back because it was good for my family. But the move had a big, big influence on my win."

Everything has to be taken into account as Clarke plots what happens next. The lessons of the Open should be clear; the requirement for a relaxed but structured environment is plain. Much twaddle has been written about a partying lifestyle. If anything, Clarke has been working too hard and reverted to his frenzied want-it-too-much mindset.

"I'm frustrated because I've been working my bollocks off," he says. "I know the impression focuses on the banter and drink. They see me with a pint of Guinness and say I'm more concerned with having a good time than playing good golf. That couldn't be further from the truth. When I'm at home, I'm hitting balls nine hours a day. At tournaments I'm often the first on the range and the last to leave. It does not always produce the desired outcome, but it is a fair measure of my work ethic and how much I care about this game."

He knows it himself – he cares too much. The obsession had started to spiral to a depth he should have escaped and thank goodness the brakes could be applied. This festive season gives him the much-needed opportunity to regroup.

"More than anything I need some time with my feet up with my boys [Tyrone, 13, and Conor, 11] my fiancée [Alison] and my family around me," he says. "I will be able to reflect in a more balanced way just what this year means to me. You can't plan for something like winning the Open. I wouldn't have it any other way; of course I wouldn't. But at the same time I'm looking forward to taking stock of all that's happened. I want to win more tournaments. I have to figure out how to do that as a major champion."

His management are on the case as well. They are looking for a fitness instructor to work and travel with Clarke, to help sharpen his focus and manage his nutrition. Such an appointment could be key. Yet only if Clarke stops beating himself up. "You know, all I ever wanted in golf was to win the Open," he says. "But then you do it and it's not like you expected it would be. You realise you have to reset your goals, or otherwise, what's next? That process is still ongoing for me. But I'll get there." For Clarke the journey isn't over. Indeed, it's probably only just beginning.

Highs and lows: Clarke's career

Born 14 August, 1968, Dungannon

1990 Wins Spanish and Irish Amateur Championships before turning pro.

1992 Gains first professional title at the 1992 Ulster Professional.

1993 Maiden European Tour victory at Alfred Dunhill Open. Finishes eighth in the Order of Merit.

1997 Finishes second, three shots behind Justin Leonard at the Open.

1997 Helps Europe win the Ryder Cup.

2000 Wins first WGC event, beating Tiger Woods 4 & 3 at Andersen Con-sulting Match Play to claim $1m prize.

2001 Ranked eighth in the world.

2006 Pivotal role in Ryder Cup victory, despite death of his wife, Heather, from cancer six weeks earlier.

2008 Misses out on Ryder Cup team for first time in 10 years.

2011 Triumphs in the Open at Royal St George's in his 54th major appearance. Becomes oldest winner in 44 years.

Mathew Beech