Darren Clarke was nursing a pint of Guinness in the Bayview Hotel in Port Ballantrae, Co Antrim, watching on television, when his protégé Rory McIlroy had a wee spot of bother in a bunker on the second day of the Masters last month.
We'll come back to young Rory, but let's stick with the image of Clarke following the action from Augusta on the telly. The big Ulsterman has played in the Masters 10 times. It is only three years since he reached the 15th tee in the third round merely a shot behind the leader Phil Mickelson, with some of us beginning to congratulate ourselves for the prescience of our each-way tenner.
As it turned out, Clarke dumped it in the water at 15 and returned a miserable final-round 77 to finish tied for 22nd place, so the tenner went west, but this year not even Clarke went west. He is currently ranked 85th in the world, not good enough to play in the Masters, or in next week's Players' Championship at Sawgrass, another of his favourite tournaments. He didn't make the 2008 Ryder Cup team either. So, is Darren Clarke, at 40, over the hill?
It is a question one should phrase carefully. A warm, gregarious man, hugely generous of spirit and pocket, he has also been known to give vent to a volcanic temper. But on the day we meet he erupts only with bonhomie, befitting his role as an ambassador for Setanta's golf coverage. It is Setanta who have arranged for Clarke to play nine holes at Foxhills Golf Club in Surrey with me and another journalist, and if he would rather be somewhere else, he shows no sign. Even after my fellow hack and I have somehow contrived to hit our opening drives straight down the middle, followed by Clarke blocking his into the trees, he is all smiles and banter. We finish the hole with par fours, incidentally, while he manufactures a chip-and-run through the trees and cans a 10ft-putt for a birdie. An hour and 45 minutes later he almost drives the par-four ninth, then casually chips in for an eagle.
But it is tournament golf, not knockabouts at Foxhills, which he needs to illuminate with such brilliance. "My game's not bad," he says. "My good is still very good. But my average is not good enough, that's what's killing me. I'm working away like a trouper, in the gym and on the practice ground, so I'm putting the hours in. It's really frustrating."
He concedes that it was painful, in many ways, to watch the Masters from Port Ballantrae, but insists that his desire to win one of golf's four major titles remains as keen as ever. "I'm far from done yet," he says, big brown eyes glittering, as if daring me to contradict him. "Mark O'Meara didn't win [a major] till he was 41, and I won twice [the Asian Open and the KLM Open] last year, so I can still play. But the reason I fell out of the world's top 50 is that I didn't play well enough, and that was due to personal circumstances for a while [the death in 2006, from breast cancer, of his wife Heather]. I hadn't been out of the top 50 for maybe 12 years, but when you're outside it's much more difficult to get back in."
The Masters offered encouragement in the form of its new champion Angel Cabrera, only a year younger than Clarke, similarly fond of a cigar, a pie and a pint, and even less fond of the gym, where Clarke now pushes himself daily. "It was great to see Angel win," he says. "He's got a great temperament. When he pitches up for tournaments he's so laid-back that you never know whether he's trying or not. When I play with him we curse together in Spanish. I know all the words." He beams. "I know words I shouldn't know in every language around the world."
One or two of them, from his native tongue, were doubtless uttered when McIlroy seemingly kicked the sand in pique after fluffing a bunker shot on the 18th at Augusta. "As soon as he did it I thought, 'What are you doing?' He was maybe a bit fortunate [not to be penalised] but the rules officials looked at it the right way."
McIlroy was a prodigy of 12 when Clarke first saw him, one of a group of talented Irish youngsters invited by the Darren Clarke Foundation to spend a weekend under the great man's scrutiny. Quietly, Clarke gave McIlroy his phone number, and told him to phone any time if he wanted more advice.
How often has he called? "Not that much. Bits and pieces here and there. Rory stood out straight away that weekend for his talent, but you're not always sure at that age whether they can move on. He has adapted to professional golf very easily, which is not always straightforward. And I'm sure his talent will give him everything he wants, although there are times when you have that much ability that you can press too hard. And you guys are heaping too much pressure on him. Just let him play."
Clarke has become used, these last few months, to fielding more questions about McIlroy than about himself. He denies that it irks him, indeed he volunteers with a grin that he can no longer compete with the teenager for length off the tee, which is all the more remarkable considering how beefy he is, and how slight McIlroy is. But then beef has nothing to do with it. "He has really fast hands, that's all I can tell you. Other than that, you'll have to ask a swing coach."
We are now in the Foxhills bar, where Clarke himself shows pretty swift hands in relation to a plate of onion rings. At Augusta, my press colleague ventures, fearlessly keeping McIlroy to the fore, Gary Player marvelled at the youngster's swing. "Gary marvels at everyone's swing," says Clarke, with a dash of vinegar not intended for the onion rings. "As I say, I'm not a swing coach. But yeah, it looks great."
How good was he at the tender age of 19? "I was plus-four [handicap], at Wake Forest [on a golf scholarship]. I could play a bit. But Rory's progress has a lot to do with the whole Tiger [Woods] thing. When I came on tour there was no Tiger. These days they watch him, they say, 'This is what he does', and more and more kids go down that route. The Swedes have been doing it for a long time. And that has moved everything on. They're ready to play at a much younger age. For me, when I turned pro, the world No 1 was Seve [Ballesteros], or maybe Greg [Norman]. There wasn't the same focus."
Still, Norman is another who shows that there is life after 40, and indeed after 50, in major championship golf. And Clarke's place is secure in next month's US Open, as it is in our own Open Championship at Turnberry, another course he enjoys, although if he could play only one course for eternity it would be his beloved Royal Portrush, on the wild Antrim coast. "Hitting five-irons 120 yards," he says, "that's the kind of golf I love. Shots along the ground. I love all that."
Five-irons 120 yards? Shots along the ground? I can do that, albeit not always deliberately. Clarke means the unique vagaries and challenges of links golf, which is where his colossal innate talent really should by now have yielded something even better than his three top 10 finishes in the Open. Instead he has watched as a less instinctive but more driven golfer from the Emerald Isle, Padraig Harrington, has (twice) lifted the Claret Jug. He nods when I refer to their differences. "Yeah, he'd go and chip and putt while I'd go for a pint. I'm trying to chip and putt a bit more now."
But with all that, of course, he must juggle single parenthood. He missed a tournament in Korea the other week purely because he wanted to be at home for eight-year-old Tyrone, his other son Conor, aged 10, having just started at boarding school. And he tells me that it was "the highlight of my career so far" to win last year's KLM Open by four shots with his sons standing by the 18th green. "They'd never seen me win before. I was so proud to have them there, seeing me doing what I do."
That win, alas, failed to persuade the Ryder Cup captain, Nick Faldo, to give Clarke the wild card most people thought he had in the bag. "I thought I'd done enough," he says, "but there are no sour grapes."
All the same, the disappointment was acute, especially as he had so richly rewarded Ian Woosnam's wild-card selection two years earlier, scarcely a month after Heather's death, and it is hard to imagine golf ever producing a more poignant spectacle than Clarke being cheered to the heavens to the first tee, then somehow unleashing a perfect drive. "I could have topped it, blocked it, snap-hooked it," he says now. "Nobody knew what I was going to do, including me."
Having not gained automatic selection for either of the last two Ryder Cup teams, he is determined to give it his best shot once the ranking points start for next year's event, he says. And he believes that Colin Montgomerie will be a fantastic captain, which is not surprising, for he was on the committee that made the appointment. I tell him that I felt sorry for the overlooked Sandy Lyle. "Yes, so did I," he says. "Sandy's a really, really good man. But anyone can miss out. Maybe I will one day, though I'd love to do it. It'd be great to do it in America. The American crowds have always taken to me, maybe because I smoke a cigar, have a pint..."
A pint, in fact, for every year of his life during the two-day celebration of his 40th birthday last August. Moderation has never been Clarke's thing, and his plummet through the rankings has not altered his high- flying lifestyle, which is manifest in the private jet, shared with his good pal Lee Westwood, on standby at Farnborough airport. He lives the life of a multiple major-winner, without the multiple majors. But there's no arguing with him when he says it's not too late.
Dazzling Darren: Clarke's credentials
Darren Christopher Clarke
Born: 14 August 1968, Dungannon
* Clarke's best performance at a major was a tie for second in the 1997 Open Championship.
* Ranked 85th in the world. Spent 43 weeks in the top 10 between 2000 and 2002.
* In 2003, he became the first player beside Tiger Woods to secure more than one World Golf Championship.
* Was the first player to shoot 60 twice, at the 1992 Monte Carlo Open and also the 1999 Smurfit Open.
Darren Clarke is an ambassador for Setanta Golf, home of the US PGA Tour. The Players' Championship at Sawgrass, Florida, is exclusively live on Setanta Golf from Thursday 7 May, and on Setanta Sports 1 on Sunday, 10 May ( www.setanta.com, 08712 2007494)Reuse content