Golf: Clarke flourishes in friendly society

Group therapy benefits old and new on Europe's golf tour. By Andy Farrell in San Roque
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The Independent Online
ON THE plane down to Jerez last October for the Volvo Masters, the last - and decisive - event of the year on the European golf tour, Darren Clarke asked Colin Montgomerie a question many have pondered about the Ulsterman: "Why don't I win more often?" Monty promised to think about it.

A few days later, once Clarke had won the pro-am, the tournament itself and pushed the Scot to the last putt for the Order of Merit title, Montgomerie gave his answer. "Don't ever ask me that question again," he said. "I would have told you but I'm not going to now."

If Clarke managed to find the answer to that particular problem himself, he also appreciates playing a sport, at least on the European tour, where there is a free flow of advice between the leading performers. Two-and- a-half years ago, Montgomerie sat Clarke down in a hotel in Switzerland. The European No 1's message was that Clarke was not fulfilling his potential.

Now Clarke is one of Monty's biggest rivals, especially when things are going well on the greens. Before each of his wins last season, the Benson and Hedges International and the Volvo Masters, he was given putting tips by Montgomerie and Lee Westwood respectively. More fool them. "The European tour is a tight-knit community," Clarke said. "The guys give each other a hand."

Clarke was doing his bit last week for the new generation of players by attending the Training School organised at San Roque by his club sponsors, MacGregor, for the new recruits to the tour. The newcomers were given advice on diet, fitness, financial matters, the psychology of the game as well as the chance to see leading coaches.

John Jacobs and Tommy Horton added a wealth of experience, while Jose Maria Olazabal, Padraig Harrington, Per-Ulrik Johansson and Clarke were also on hand. "Everyone is so keen to help you," said Weybridge's Andrew Raitt. "There are no airs and graces."

Clarke's message to the youngsters was simple. "Practise, practise, practise," he said. "And when you think you have had a hard day practising, practise some more." It is a regime that has seen Clarke rise to 18th in the world and the top 10 is his aim for 1999.

"I'm in the position now where that is a realistic goal," he said. "Winning the Volvo Masters was a huge boost for me, especially knowing I had to play really well on the last day and going out and scoring a 63. But I am still only halfway up the ladder and I've got a lot of rungs still to go."

To help the upward climb, Clarke has taken on a personal trainer with the aim of removing the stone that has gone on to the already substantial frame since giving up smoking two months ago. The 30-a-day man stubbed out his last cigarette at Tokyo airport before returning home and was given a standing ovation by Westwood and the pair's caddies.

"I used a patch for 10 days but I've been fine since then," he said. "It is partly because smoking is so antisocial, partly because of the baby at home and partly because it looks so terrible on TV. I have got to be aware of my image and it sets a bad example. The test will come when I start playing again, but I also found I smoked less the better I played. As for getting fitter, who knows? But I have finished second by one shot so many times and this might just help."

With the new World Championship events being introduced - the first is in San Diego next month - there will be ever more travelling this season. But Clarke is skipping the European tour's opening event, the South African PGA, this week and will make his debut at the Malaysian Open in three weeks' time.

That will be the first of five events leading up to the US Masters at Augusta, where he was eighth on his first appearance last season. The first thing Clarke will do this week, after recovering from the celebrations for Westwood's wedding in Worksop yesterday, will be to get a bet on himself for Augusta. The current price is 66-1. "That's too big a price for a course which suits me," he said.

Then in September comes the Ryder Cup in Boston. As a member of the winning team at Valderrama, Clarke got to play only once before the singles and would like to make a bigger contribution. But he is not critical of Seve Ballesteros's captaincy. "I have no qualms with what happened. We went there as a team and won as a team. I just want to play a bit more this time. I think Mark James will be a great captain."

Clarke's other main off- season activity has been to open a restaurant, the Salmon Leap, with some partners in Coleraine. "He has always been good at eating and drinking," said Chubby Chandler, his manager. But any suggestion, as has been put in print in Ireland, that money and the good life will affect his ambition is swiftly denied by Clarke.

"You know when they put a row of asterisks in the papers," the 30-year- old said. "Money has never been a driving issue for me. Money is only there to spend. What drives me is winning, and now I want to win bigger and better tournaments."

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