Darren Clarke: 'To my mind this was the ultimate team performance'

The Ryder Cup hero is favourite to be named BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He tells James Corrigan why he remains reluctant to receive such acclaim
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The Independent Online

Just one more time, Darren Clarke is telling himself, just one more soul-baring and the intrusion will surely stop. Then he can start the process of living again.

The problem is that the grieving husband's final grilling under the merciless spotlight will be rather intense, what with some 10 million looking on; "ahhs" at the ready for any quivering lips, "poor loves" awaiting any tear-duct seepage. The sentimental junkies may be disappointed, though, as the favourite to be named BBC Sports Personality of the Year tomorrow night has endured some emotional workout these past few weeks.

"It does get bloody wearing, having your private feelings raked over all the time," says Clarke, while admitting that he was resigned to all this heart-prodding. After all, he agrees, it was he who put himself forward to play in the Ryder Cup six weeks after the death of his wife, Heather, and it was he who agreed to the publishing of Heroes All, his touching insight into that magical week by the Liffey. "Fair enough, I'm a professional golfer who has put myself up here and journalists are entitled to ask whatever they want," he adds. "But sometimes it would be nice if people thought before they asked. I have found myself wondering how they'd react if the roles were reversed."

In the old days, few would have bothered wasting valuable nano-seconds wondering how Clarke, himself, would have reacted. A short Ulster expletive would have inevitably been followed by an equally abrupt about-turn, although times have changed, irrevocably so. Nobody need remind Clarke of that, just as nobody should dare question how grateful he may or may not be for the great outpouring of public warmth towards him and his two boys, Tyrone (8) and Conor (6).

"I do appreciate what it meant to a lot of people, you know, and how much they cared," he says. "And if there are those who have drawn inspiration from how I've tried to cope with things and if it's even helped just one person who is unfortunate to be going through what I did, then that's fantastic. I haven't got a problem with that, how could I possibly have? Now, I might struggle a bit with the description of 'role model'. Can you imagine it, me ever being a role model? For someone who wants to smoke a few cigars and drink vast quantities of Guinness, maybe. But for anybody else?"

Clarke laughs loudly as he considers it, although later he confesses the fear that "the BBC thing" - as he endearingly calls it - may be about to take him into a new stratosphere of fame. "I'm a golfer, nothing else.

"That's what I do," he says. "And the more that people recognise me for other things is not what I want, not what I'm used to. I don't seek publicity and never have. I shy away from it as much as I possibly can. That's why golf has helped, throughout all this. It has been great to get away from all the clamour, get inside the ropes and just play. It's in there where I feel most comfortable. They can't question me in there, over and over again. I'm in my own world, just trying to win golf tournaments. For me and my boys. That's all I want."

Clarke's wish is indeed a simple one and one that centres around a date that does not happen to be the 10th of December at the Birmingham NEC. It is hardly surprising that, in one particular household in Surrey, this 1st of January will have greater resonance than any before. "That will be the time when I can wipe the slate clean," says Clarke. "Not to forget, of course, but it's all about drawing lines and building again. I've had an extremely traumatic period of my life and I want to move on, from a professional point of view on the golf course, and make my boys proud. I know it will be good for Tyrone and Conor to see that Daddy's doing what Daddy always did and that he's doing it well. You know, even when I would speak to the boys from tournaments earlier this year they would ask, 'Daddy what position are you in?' and 'Daddy, are you going to win this week?' Unfortunately, I couldn't do it for them and give them that. That's what makes me so determined to do it when this new phase of my career starts. They will be a part of everything."

Most obviously, that will include Clarke's schedule. "Yeah, I've set out to try to play two weeks on, two weeks off," he reveals, "and although this won't always be feasible, there'll be events I would always have played in that I'll now miss and events that I wouldn't have dreamed of being at where I'll now play. A lot is going to change, but I'm certain I will still be competitive. In fact, I happen to think that I may just have a major in me."

His reasons for doing so have been as well trailed this last month as that of his reluctance to succeed his great friend Andrew Flintoff on that BBC rostrum. When Clarke stood on that first tee at the K Club and Ireland reached a decibel level that seasoned golf observers confirm was unprecedented, all he could do was put complete faith in a golf game that has always verged on the sickeningly natural. And in that gut-wrenching moment he learned a great deal about pressure and his withstanding of it. "There will never be a harder shot for me to play," he says. "I now know that whatever my nervous system does to me in a major, it will be nothing compared to what happened that Friday morning."

For anybody who missed it - and Martians holidaying on the dark side of Pluto spring to mind - Clarke "flushed" his driver down the middle 340 yards, "buttoned" his approach straight over the flag and "knocked in" the 15-footer. "It is an experience that I hope I can draw on some time," he says. "It's just a question of putting myself in the position where it'll help, I suppose."

It is the place Clarke yearns to be, and quickly "because I'm 38 years old and by my reckoning have about five years left to win a major". It is as much for his own sake as for those of his boys', that one hopes Clarke can manage it. At least then he will not have to look on the award he is odds-on to lift tomorrow with such a conflicting mixture of feelings. "I've said it before and I'll say it again, it's the 'sympathy vote' part of it that doesn't sit easy with me and it never will," he says. "Now winning the 'Team of the Year' prize would be something else altogether, because to my mind this was the ultimate team performance. Unfortunately a lot of the media got directed towards me and my circumstances and some of the other contributions were overlooked. Look at Lee [Westwood] - he played sensationally and Sergio [Garcia], too. And then there was Monty [Colin Montgomerie] leading us out and [Paul] Casey's hole-in-one... we had such a team that it seems unfair to pick me out." But Clarke has been picked out. He knows, as much as anyone, that fairness does not even come into it.

Heroes All: My Ryder Cup Story by Darren Clarke, Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99.