Darren Clarke: The Ulsterman who rode a tide of emotion

Favourite for the BBC Sports Personality prize, a Ryder Cup hero tells Nick Townsend of his discomfort with a nation's sympathy votes
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He approached the first tee knowing that one of his great confidants - albeit during this weekend an adversary - Tiger Woods had already found water with his tee shot on that 418-yard hole, Bohereen Road. When Ryder Cup tremors affected even the world No 1 on that first morning at the K Club near Dublin, you could only begin to imagine the trial Darren Clarke endured as the professional within him fought to overcome latent emotions stirred by his adjacent countrymen.

At this moment, the Ulsterman needed to rediscover himself as one of the world's leading golfers, capable of making a crucial contribution to the European cause, after six weeks as a grieving husband and much, much longer as a caring partner to his ailing wife, Heather.

"Nothing can compare with what I went through on that first tee," he says. "There will never be a harder shot or hole for me to play."

That recollection is from his bookHeroes All, in which the rawness of his wife's death from breast cancer in mid-August never causes him to shank into the mawkish rough. He adds: "We had gone from deafening roar to cathedral calm. One minute you needed earplugs and the next you could hear a feather land on a pillow.

"I just stood tall, went through my pre-shot routine, took the club back, and then just absolutely nutted the ball. I killed it down the middle, some 340 yards, to just before the run-out at the end of the fairway."

It has been one of the defining moments in sport in 2006. That, and the subsequent birdie three on the first, were the prelude to a one-hole victory over Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco in the fourballs for Clarke and his wild-card partner, Lee Westwood; a duo in whom the European captain, Ian Woosnam, rightly as it transpired, had deposited so much faith.

It was the Ryder Cup, when sporting rivalry was a comrade of dignity. Clarke was the catalyst. From the moment Woods, himself bereaved, his father Earl having died earlier this year, had convinced him his place should be at the K Club. When Amy Mickelson had linked arms with Clarke and her husband at the opening ceremony. And when Zach Johnson had magnanimously conceded his singles match with him on the 16th, at a point when the Ulsterman concedes: "I had a two-footer to win the match and I was all over the place".

Goodwill abounded. Surely he had fed off that atmosphere that swirled in like a dawn mist that first morning? "I was more interested in getting my shot off the tee at the first, and somewhere near the fairway, and getting the whole thing started!" he says, with a wry laugh. "No, the reception that I received at the first really was incredible. It didn't make the tee shot any easier, but it was great to know that I had the support I had."

Not everyone believed he should be there at all, of course. In a poll in an Irish newspaper, 50 per cent of readers believed that the man, originally from Dungannon, should still be in his mourning, not his Ryder Cup, jacket. I put it to him that it would have been a tougher decision if this year's Ryder Cup had been an away fixture.

"Yes, is the honest answer," he says. "It probably would have been an awful lot harder if it had been in America this time. I'm not sure what I would have done. I had many restless evenings thinking about it as it was. But the fact that it was at home, and it was in Ireland... I knew Heather would have wanted me to play. Even then I had to be confident that I was going to be able to contribute to the team."

Woods, it had become evident in the prelude to the event, had been instrumental in his great friend, the cigar-chomping, Guinness-worshipping and sartorially flamboyant Clarke, making himself available to Europe's team captain. Clarke confirms: "Tiger's comments and his phone calls helped me come to the decision that I did. I really value our friendship. His support was very important to me and it did make a difference."

What had concerned Clarke was the inevitable focus on his own loss. He was anxious then, and is now, that his personal circumstances should not diminish an overwhelming team triumph. Indeed, the title of his book emphasises his attempt to deflect attention from himself and towards the quality of the dozen good men and true, led by Woosnam, whose eventual vic-tory equalled Europe's best score, recorded two years previously at Oakland Hills. "The week wasn't about me," Clarke protests. "And I didn't want it to be."

But 2006 is decidedly about him, as next Sunday's BBC Sports Personality of the Year will almost certainly attest. "I'd be honoured to win it, of course I would," he says of his position as clear favourite. "But there's also another side of it sits uncomfortably with me, for obvious reasons... whether people would be voting for me out of sympathy or because of what went on [at the Ryder Cup].

"There's part of me that would love to win it - and another would be very slightly embarrassed at winning it. I'm right in the middle. It's very strange. If my wife hadn't passed away, there'd be no way I would be getting the award."

In particular, he feels strongly that Westwood, with whom he has enjoyed a rewarding Ryder Cup partnership, has not received due accolades for his contribution. They are clearly kindred spirits. "We're not on the phone every other day, having a chat, or anything like that, but when we're on tour we really enjoy each other's company," says Clarke. "That means he completely takes the piss out of me and I completely take the piss out of him. If you do anything wrong at all, you know you've got to bear the consequences."

He adds: "It's been very difficult for him. When Heather was ill, and this year and last year I pulled out of tournaments, most of the friends on the tour who wanted to know about her would go and ask Lee. He would be fielding most of the questions that people couldn't ask me or didn't want to ask me."

Beyond that BBC date at the NEC in Birmingham, Clarke is already attuned to the possibilities yielded by the new year, one in which we will witness the imposing Irishman stride the fairways with renewed vigour and determination.

"I would dearly love to win a major," says the man who was Open Championship runner-up at Royal Troon in 1997 and third at Royal Lytham four years later. "I just see my best chance as being on a links, because of my affinity with Royal Portrush. I'm playing a lot of golf there.

"My desire and determination hasn't waned in the slightest. It's just my application has been tested in these past few years. My boys [Conor and Tyrone] are my number one priority. They're the heartbeat of my life. I've got to make sure that they're OK. Whatever I do revolves around them."

He adds: "But at the same time when I'm going to play in tournaments, I've got to make sure I'm as ready and prepared as I can possibly be to compete and try to win. I'm not going to go and play to make up numbers. Hopefully, there's still a lot of positive golf to come from me."

He talks of competing in another Ryder Cup; maybe two or three. He relishes the thought of captaincy some day. Retirement is long distant. "My golf design business is quite busy; I've got seven or eight courses on the go around the world," he says. "That's an avenue I'm hopefully going to get further involved in. But I want to keep on playing because people develop at different stages, and hopefully I'm one of the late ones. Unfortunately, through Heather's illness, I was never quite able to focus as much as possibly I could have done, for obvious reasons."

Away from the course, he plans to continue fundraising to help fight the disease that killed his wife. "I've been raising money through the Darren Clarke Foundation that I've set up," he explains. "At the moment, there's about a quarter of a million pounds that I'm ready to give to different charities. I'm planning to raise between one and two million in the next one or two years - and hopefully that will make a difference. It's also about raising the awareness that it's not just an affliction that affects older women. It affects an awful lot of younger women as well, as I could obviously see through four years of watching Heather trying to deal with it and on our many hospital visits."

You suggest the past year can only have strengthened him as a golfer; as a human being. "I've been tested as much as I can possibly be tested. Let's put it that way," he says. "Whether that makes me a better, stronger person, I don't know." That one moment, as he pulled back his driver on the first, on a morning when tears had flowed freely from all but Clarke himself, points to the affirmative.

LIFE & TIMES: The Tiger tamer from Co Tyrone

NAME: Darren Christopher Clarke.

BORN: 14 August 1968, Dungannon, Northern Ireland.

VITAL STATS: 6ft 2in, 15st.

EARLY DOORS: Wake Forest University, North Carolina, US. Turned pro 1990.

TITLES: 15, including World Match Play 2000 (beating Tiger Woods), European Open '01, NEC Invitational '03. First to win English Open three times. Second on European Tour money list '98, '00, '03.

RYDER CUP: '97 (won), '99 (lost), '02 (won), '04 (won), '06 (won). Record: won 10, halved 3, lost 7. (Represented Northern Ireland in World Cup and Alfred Dunhill Cup.)

WORLD RANKING: 33.

OBSCURE FACT: Reported to spend £25,000 a year on cigars.

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