Fans' support carries Clarke to victory's shore

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The Independent Online

A lesser man would have been overwhelmed. Ireland gave the Ryder Cup its famous warm welcome yesterday morning but the warmest reception was reserved for Darren Clarke. He was embraced by the arms of friends and opponents alike, and by the cheers of the massed supporters; strangers, you might call them, except no one is a stranger in Ireland and certainly not one of their finest golfers in a state of bereavement.

Cloaked by this wave of love and sympathy, Clarke and Lee Westwood got down to the business of winning a point for Europe. In defeating Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco at the last they put the home side in front after the morning fourballs.

The noise alone was nerve-tingling on the first tee. Padraig Harrington received the first roar that was mightier than all the others, but it was nothing compared to what awaited Clarke. "I was nearly crying," said Westwood, his partner. "I looked at Billy [Foster, Clarke's caddie] and he was nearly crying. That made me worse. I couldn't look at Darren."

First-tee nerves at the Ryder Cup are the stuff of legend. Playing for team-mates, for a country, for a continent, have their effect. Clarke was playing for more. For two young sons, for their late mother. Heather Clarke died six weeks ago after a long and brave fight with breast cancer. After Clarke decided to make himself available for a wild-card pick by the Europe captain, Ian Woosnam, the Ulsterman was fully aware this would be the hardest moment.

"It was an emotional moment on the first tee, as it was always going to be," Clarke said. "The reception is something I will never, ever forget."

Westwood gave him a hug and so, too, did Mickelson and DiMarco. "It was a special moment, very touching. It's what the Ryder Cup is all about. It's not about animosity, it's about a match we both want to win amongst friends."

And then Clarke spanked a drive 300-plus yards down the middle, knocked his second to eight feet and holed the putt for a winning birdie. "I don't know how I managed that," he admitted. "I went flush, flush, flush and made a three. It was good to get back out there again." After the fairy-tale beginning, the golf was steady, not as spectacular as in the other matches. But against a pair who won three-and-a-half points out of four at last year's Presidents Cup, Clarke and Westwood never trailed.

Clarke made another birdie at the 13th and DiMarco followed him in for the half. The key moment was at the par-five 16th. Both the Europeans were over the water in two but it was Clarke's chip-and-putt birdie which put them one-up again.

At the last Clarke's second hopped off the lip of a bunker and stopped on the fringe of the green. When he tapped a putt down to the hole the Americans were forced to concede. Both Mickelson and then DiMarco stopped for a few words as they shook hands with Clarke. Then it got really emotional. Westwood and Clarke hugged, then Amy Mickelson hugged him and then so, too, did many of his team-mates, including Paul Casey, who had concluded his own match moments before.

Clarke admits to "growing up" in recent months and others have noticed differences in the 38-year-old. "He has become much more tactile," said Chubby Chandler, his manager. "He gives people a hug now. He never used to do."

While Clarke could talk about the first tee, he could not find the words for the scene on the 18th green. "Emotions, hopefully, you don't ever have to feel. That's basically what they were."

It was the fifth point in seven matches that Clarke and Westwood, both wild cards this time round, have gained together in the Ryder Cup. "It's always great to be with Lee. We are great friends, we know how each other ticks. He doesn't say much unless I misbehave and lose my head, but I was all right today. It was nice to get a point for Woosie."

With Woosnam hoping to get all his squad on the course, Clarke was happy to rest in the afternoon. "Clarkey is playing a great role behind the scenes," Casey said. "He's one of the senior figures and talks a lot to the other players. He's one of our rocks. He's having a cracking time and really appreciating all the support he's getting, not only from the team but from outside the ropes." If anything, Clarke was concerned the crowd was not too loud. "I didn't want it to be perceived I was using the crowd in my favour. I was very grateful for their support. They showed me they care."

He added: "Time is the only thing that can help the healing. But I've been proud to be part of this team and to be here and to be welcomed by my team-mates, the American team, everyone involved in the event. They have welcomed me with open arms and have been very supportive."