Major waster makes unconscious effort to complete coming of age

Psychological help and personal change enabled underachiever finally to realise his potential. James Corrigan reports
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The Independent Online

How does a professional golfer win his first major at the age of 42 after 53 tournaments and 20 years of trying? Considering Darren Clarke had enjoyed exactly no sleep and the same amount of black coffee when meeting the media yesterday morning, this wasn't the time to be posing searching enquiries.

But at the after-Open party on Sunday night, Clarke delivered a honest assessment of where he had gone wrong before.

"I used to give myself airs and graces when I was a younger," said Clarke. "I have to admit I was a horrible twat. I wouldn't speak to you journalists if I'd had a bad round. I was rude and it wasn't right. I'd like to think I've learnt from my mistakes."

Of course, how a pro behaves towards golf writers is invariably irrelevant to how he performs on the course (eg Tiger Woods). But in the case of Clarke it was all part of the problem. The mist would descend and with it would go his form. In golfing parlance, he "was getting in his own way". Indeed, as recently as April, Clarke found Clarke an impossible hurdle.

"He was one shot behind going into the weekend in Morocco, shot an 81 and 77 to finish 77th and was thinking about giving the game up," said his manager, Chubby Chandler. "It was the lowest I'd ever seen him. I told Darren to go on holiday. He went away for three weeks, came back and won in Majorca."

Eight weeks later Clarke was winning in Kent, except this was no Iberdrola Open. This was "The" Open. Vindication, validation, verification... call it what you will. But whatever, Clarke could give the Vs to any number of doubters who had written him off a major waster.

"PATFW" – "prove all the fuckers wrong". It was the acronym with which Mike Finnigan, the performance coach Clarke sought out in the wake of his Agadir agony, enthused his new client. "Darren's shoulders were down, so Mike gave him this message to tell himself every day and that is exactly what he has done," said Chandler. "It was also important him meeting up with Dr Bob."

Dr Bob is Dr Bob Rotella, the famed sports psychologist who helped Padraig Harrington to three majors. Clarke and Rotella had worked with each other on and off for years, but hadn't done so for more than 18 months when they ran into each other on the eve of the Open. While Clarke's tee-to-green game had improved under Finnigan, his putting remained a seemingly insurmountable problem.

"Darren was tied up in knots," Rotella told The Independent yesterday. "He said he was so bad with his putter it was affecting his whole game. He told me: 'If I don't hit it to a foot, I'm not going to make any birdies.' And that was putting pressure on the rest of his game."

The good doctor had a cure. "I said: 'Darren, you're going to have to go unconscious'," explained Rotella, who spoke to Clarke for 20 minutes immediately before the start of all four rounds. "I told him I didn't want him to think about technique, I just wanted him to look where he wanted it to go and then hit it there, just like he did when he was 12. We do a million different things a day when we don't stop and think about it. Drinking a glass of water – 'how did you hit your mouth without thinking?' I used to work with stammerers. More than 98 per cent of them could talk when they were in their bathroom; it was just that little doubt in public which tied them up."

Never mind The King's Speech, soon this led to the champion's speech. Clarke and Rotella are in the process of finalising an agreement which will see them work together regularly. Both realise that unless he can replicate the Sandwich serenity, Clarke could be one and done as far as majors are concerned.

"I wouldn't think it's a one-off," said Rotella. "But can we get him to be in that frame of mind at the next tournament? If we can, then we'll find out if he can win another." Clarke agreed. "Chubby says it's only once every three years I get into the frame of mind to listen," he said. "Somehow I've got to get myself in the same mood as I was at the Open."

Thankfully, the challenge is a live one. Clarke now qualifies for the three American majors for the next five years and the Open until he is 60. Rotella feels the old "monkey off the back" cliché will also assist. "With some of the things that have happened to Darren it would be easy for him to think a black cloud was following him," said Rotella. "Now he can see that's not the case."

Rotella was referring mainly to the death of Clarke's wife, Heather, five years ago after a long illness. Of course, golf was way down the list of his priorities as he came to terms with being the sole parent to his two young sons. But, looking back, Chandler surmises: "Darren lost five or six years of his career." It was last year's decision to move from the English metropolis back to his Northern Ireland which triggered the reawakening. In his fianceé, Alison Campbell, he found a new life and on Royal Portrush he found his old touch.

"Moving back to Royal Portrush played a huge part in this victory," he said. "I lived in the centre of London and it wasn't conducive to playing links golf. This past winter I would be out playing with my mates three times a week in all kinds of weather. We might have a few pints before we played and a lot more when we came in, but it definitely helped over the weekend in the bad weather."

They call him "laid-back" in Portrush; a statement which would still be laughed out of the locker room. Clarke knows what he was and feels he has rectified the faults. "I definitely appreciate this more now than if it had happened to me 10 years ago," he said. "A decade ago I took an awful lot for granted as a professional golfer. I played well and won this and I achieved that, blah, blah, blah. But now I am much more switched on to everything that goes with the tournament, the sponsors, the fans, the other players, so I know what it means. I also appreciate that it's so much easier to win with a smile than a scowl."

It may seem a strange thing to say about a 42-year-old, but Clarke has come of age. He summed this up with one simple answer. How would the man who once owned a Ferrari with the boastful number plate of "DC60" be spending the huge windfall heading in his direction? "Been there, done that," replied Clarke. "I don't want to be that wanker who lives on top of the hill." Blessedly, Clarke is so much more than that now.