Golf: Clarke ready for assault on European summit

Second in The Open, fourth in the European Tour Order of Merit and eighth in the Masters - others would die for such `underachievement'. Ian Stafford hears why a big Irishman is determined to do better
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The Independent Online
DARREN CLARKE had many thoughts after securing the Benson and Hedges International title last week at The Oxfordshire course, his third victory on the European Tour. He was relieved, of course, that he avoided yet another second place, something that was beginning to become an annoying, if lucrative habit.

He was pleased to have held his patience while others, notably his friend and recent putting mentor, Colin Montgomerie, fell away in the crucial last round. And he was delighted to have notched up a major victory amid such golfing luminaries, as well as depositing a useful cheque of pounds 125,000.

But first and foremost, the 29-year-old from Northern Ireland would have nodded his head with conviction. "That's more like it," was the initial verdict on Clarke's performance and result. And he would have meant it.

For, if you have not yet gathered, one of the fast-rising stars of world, let alone European golf, is not entirely satisfied with his lot. After a past year that saw him finish second in the Open, fourth in the European Tour Order of Merit, eighth in his first ever Masters appearance, and play a part in the European Ryder Cup-winning team, Clarke genuinely believes that he has under-achieved. Although a win at the Oxfordshire would have eased the frustration, he feels that he should have achieved much more.

"My short game's not consistent enough for my liking, I should have won more tournaments than I have, and it took me three months to get over failing to win the Open," he says, with a shake of his head.

I tell him that there are plenty of professional golfers out there who would gladly swap with Clarke. "Oh yes, you're right there," he admits. "I'm progressing nicely, but I know I'm not even close to fulfilling my potential. That's why, although I'm frustrated, I'm also excited. When I do, I know I'll be right up there with the big boys."

Few would not argue the case that Clarke is already there. Big in appearance, and increasingly so in stature, too, within the game of golf, the man from Portrush, who now has a house in both Bushmills and Sunningdale, together with his growing collection of fast cars, already enjoys the trappings of a successful sportsman.

"The financial side of what I do is obviously very nice," he concedes. "But I'm playing to win golf tournaments first and foremost. I know some people may not believe it's what counts, but when you are in contention for a major title, all you're thinking about is that cup, and the champion's mantle."

His biggest near-miss to date took place at Royal Troon last July where, for a while, he led the field by five strokes. A first major win was on the cards until Clarke fell away in the final two rounds, doing well to halt the slide sufficiently enough to finish second. Looking back, despite the obvious disappointment, he still views the experience as positive.

"I didn't play well enough in the last 27 holes to deserve to win the Open," he admits, with a resigned smile on his friendly face. "But I finished second by hanging on when my play was poor, and for that I am grateful. I knew I could have won if I had played a little better, but that's golf. Justin Leonard played very well to win the title. Few win the first major they have been in contention for. What I do know is that in the seven years I have played the Open, my position has always improved."

You do not have to be too good at maths to work out that if Clarke's run were to continue at Royal Birkdale this time he would emerge as the Open champion. Is this possible?

"Why not?" he replies. "I know I'm capable of it. If you can finish second in the Open, you can win it. I finished eighth in my first US Masters in April, which was a fantastic experience, but I'd still place the Open highest on my list, because it's the biggest, the oldest and the most prestigious tournament in the world. Coming second last year did one other thing for me. It made me realise, and accept, that I am a contender in every tournament I enter."

It has all happened rather quickly for him. Four years ago few outside close golfing circles had heard of the man, at least not until he won his first tournament on the European Tour in Belgium, beating the likes of Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros and Ian Woosnam along the way.

"It meant a lot to me to win that first tournament," he recalls. "Especially in such company. Before then there was an element of feeling a little star struck. All that's in the past now."

The 1997 Ryder Cup, his first of what promises to be many cup appearances, also appears high up his personal list of golfing highlights. "People have always said it's a great experience to play in the Ryder Cup. Well, I can tell you it's better than that. The pressure was incredible, and for all the practice I put in prior to the three days, I was still praying that my first tee shot would hit the fairway. I'd sat and watched a number of Ryder Cups before, so to be part of the winning team was an experience I'll never forget."

Now, however, his sights are even higher. "I want to win a major, and I'd like to top the European order," he admits, without batting an eyelid. "As I said, there's a lot more to come yet."

Where does such ambition come from? His manager, the highly successful Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, who also looks after the likes of Lee Westwood and Andrew Coltart, confirms Clarke's self-critical view. "Darren's done very well," Chandler tells you. "But of all the golfer's in my stable, I reckon Darren has under-achieved the most. That may sound a little harsh, but it underlines the potential the man has."

Certainly being part of such a successful stable has helped rather than hindered Clarke. Westwood ended last year close to being the form player in the world, while Coltart wrapped up the Australian Order of Merit and the Dubai Open for himself. What does this do to a man like Clarke?

"It makes me feel genuinely delighted for the boys, and also incredibly motivated to do that much better," Clarke freely admits. "Don't get me wrong. We're all very friendly, but there's an intense rivalry. We all think: `If he can do it, then so can I, because I know I'm at least as good as him.' I think it's fair to say that my drive is helped by the success of others within the stable."

There is another element behind Clarke's success. The son of a greenkeeper, he could hardly avoid the game. "At the age of 11 I reduced my handicap from 36 to 13," he tells you. "The following year it went down to three." Yet another sport vied with golf for his attention, a sport that nearly won the day.

"I was really into rugby," he says which, when you look at his huge frame, is of no surprise. "I played at either open-side flank or No 8, and I went to a very strong rugby school, the Royal School, in Dungannon. There came a time when I had to make a serious choice: which sport would I want to take up. I reckon I would definitely have played for Dungannon, and then, who knows?"

Indeed, the vision of running out in the Irish green jersey at Lansdowne Road still makes Clarke misty-eyed. But not too much. "I chose golf, partly because rugby was not professional at the time, and golf definitely was, but also because I was absolutely hooked on the game. I'd play 72 holes a day in the summer. I just couldn't stop playing. In the end, there was nothing else in the world I wanted to do."

Then there is the Northern Ireland factor. Although Clarke now lives mainly in Sunningdale - "it cut out all that extra travelling" - he remains proud to be Irish. His success, he accepts, is good news for him, but also good news for his troubled home region. "I've had so much support from home, not just from the north, but from all over Ireland," he says. "I'm very aware of my roots.

"There have obviously been a few negative elements to Northern Ireland, which is a great shame because it's a beautiful country, with some of the finest golf courses in the world. The negatives have been caused by a tiny percentage of people, so anything positive coming out of Northern Ireland can only be for the good. Sport brings people together, regardless of religion. It crosses over all borders."

A win at the Open, then, would certainly do no harm, then? "Well, I'll be trying my hardest. And if my form holds, then I must be in with a chance."

Whatever happens he has much to look forward to this summer. With his third title now under his belt, a host of major tournaments over the next few weeks to look forward to, and the birth of his first child in early August, this just might be an unforgettable year for Darren Clarke.

"That's the plan," he confirms, as he jumps into his latest acquisition, a brand new BMW, ready to speed off. "And I feel I'm back on course again." The man, judging by his exit, is in a hurry, which might just spell bad news for those up against him this summer on the finest fairways and greens in Europe.