Ryder Cup 2006: Smiles, tears, hugs and fears as friends sweep Clarke along

World No 1 is upstaged yet again as Ireland extends emotional salute to returning hero
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The Independent Online

The Irish need no excuse to let their hair down. Coming as naturally as conversation from somebody on intimate terms with the Blarney Stone, they embrace a cause like there's no tomorrow. Yet this edition of the Ryder Cup, which is being held in the Emerald Isle for the first time, has hit these shores like a Hollywood blockbuster.

Forget for the moment the trials and tribulations of Tiger Woods. Instead take Darren Clarke, resuming his life at this, of all events, after losing his wife. If Big Darren is not back in the bosom of his family he's in the next best thing. Dovetailed with Lee Westwood, a close friend who becomes even closer when they play together in the Ryder Cup, Clarke yesterday emerged triumphant, as he did on day one.

In the fourballs Clarke and Westwood beat Woods and Jim Furyk 3&2 and the denouement of the match said it all. At the 16th hole, a mischievous par-five of 555 yards, Clarke, playing his fourth shot from the rough at the back of the green, chipped in. The extras in this drama, the 40,000 or so spectators who normally give their throats the full roar at places like Croke Park, Lansdowne Road or the Curragh, once again stretched their tonsils to breaking pitch.

Few people thought this thing could get more emotional but they were wrong. When Clarke's ball disappeared into the hole there were hugs all round, and not just from his corner but a very generous and gracious handshake which became an embrace from Tiger. They are also close friends, closer still since both of them lost loved ones to cancer. If it wasn't easy for Clarke to play in this, it can't have been easy for whoever was playing against him.

Some of these collisions of the continents, the War on the Shore and the Battle of Brookline for example, have been the nearest thing to golf with a knuckleduster. Winning was everything - it still is - and sympathy for the stricken was in short supply. Yesterday the turn of events was staggering.

Woods, for the second day running, was not a happy bunny. About the only time a smile crossed his lips was when he congratulated Clarke on the 16th green . "I do feel for Tiger," Clarke said afterwards. "He's such a good friend and it's tough to see the best player in the world not playing at his best. He's struggling a bit with his timing and that happens to us all. You want to beat people when they're at their best." The Woods-Furyk partnership was supposed to be a US gold card. "We can play a bit as well," Clarke, who had a chat with Ronan Keating, a local resident, before going to the first tee, said. "We get ourselves up for these games and rise to the occasion."

The Irish, on and off the course, need no excuse to get themselves up for this. Clarke and Westwood have taken six points in eight matches together and this time both were Ian Woosnam's wild-card selections. The Dane Thomas Bjorn, overlooked by the Welshman, described Woosnam as "pathetic" and the "worst captain ever", remarks which earned him a fine and a reprimand and drew an apology. Bjorn has been on holiday in Italy and returns today to watch the singles on television at his home in Wentworth.

"People thought we were a gamble," Clarke said, "and I think the people who were mostly sure it wasn't were me and Lee. We know each other's game so well and we enjoy each other's company so much." As hard as it was on Bjorn, it was a no brainer for Woosnam to pick Clarke, taking the Irish contingent in the 12-man team to three, the Ulsterman joining the Dubliners Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley.

Harrington, who was always of the opinion that playing in front of your home crowd made the pressure worse, was one of the players who was on duty morning and afternoon. In rounds taking up to five and a half hours and in weather encompassing the four seasons, the players with no respite from the action were feeling the strain.

Clarke was asked, given his good form - on Friday he and Westwood beat Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco in the fourballs - if he would have preferred to have gone out again in the afternoon's foursomes. He almost fell off his chair. "I've had a nice morning's golf, we won a point and it's pissing down," he said. Instead, Clarke enjoyed a leisurely lunch and later adjourned to the course, Churchillian cigar in hand, to join the cheerleaders for his colleagues.

Most of them obliged, although Harrington and McGinley, in the last match of the day, were defeated by Woods and Furyk, America's solitary victory in the foursomes. It gave the US and the endangered Tiger a thin lifeline going into today's 12 singles matches.

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