New Faces for '94 / Golf: Clarke scrummaging his way towards front row: A heavyweight golfer closes on the fairway's big guns. Tim Glover reports on an Irish threat to the leaderboard

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The Independent Online
HAD he played his cards right it is possible that Darren Clarke could have been scrummaging down with the Irish pack, preparing for a hard season in the Five Nations' Championship. Instead he is playing golf in West Palm Beach, warming up for another big drive at the Volvo European Tour.

Actually, it was not just golf that took him to Florida. On New Year's Eve he measured up for his tuxedo, rehearsed his speech and fulfilled his duties as best man at the wedding of his fellow Irish professional, Eoghan O'Connell. Being best man is something that Clarke could get used to.

Of the new wave, the careers of Ernie Els, of South Africa, and Gary Orr, of Scotland, warrant close attention this year but the progress of Clarke has been even more spectacular. In the latter half of the season his name was hardly off the leaderboard and his debut victory, in the Alfred Dunhill Open at Royal Zoute in Belgium, was achieved against a world-class field.

Clarke's aggregate of 270 won him pounds 100,000 and the pack he kept at bay in the final round consisted of Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros, Vijay Singh, Rodger Davis and Gordon Brand Jnr, all of whom are experienced at going for the jugular when they scent blood. Clarke put in another performance of outstanding merit when he finished runner-up to Colin Montgomerie in the Volvo Masters at Valderrama. Both players shot 68 in the last round and Montgomerie, on 10 under par, got home by a stroke. 'He didn't back off one bit,' Montgomerie said of Clarke. 'He was very unlucky because in any other year nine under would have won easily.'

Clarke had no regrets. He won pounds 369,675 in Europe and in the last three seasons has moved from 112th in the Order of Merit to 41st to eighth. In the world rankings in the last 12 months he has gone from 146th to 58th. His aim now is to break into the top 50 for that is when the first-class invitations start coming thick and fast and doors are opened to the major championships in America.

Clarke is a 25-year-old heavyweight with one of the sunniest dispositions on the Tour. He was born in Dungannon, County Antrim; his grandfather played football for a number of English First Division clubs and his father was a professional in the Irish League. Clarke joined Dungannon G C when he was 11 but at the Royal School excelled at rugby. He was a goalkicking back-row forward of great promise. He captained every team he played for and was heading for an Ulster trial at the age of 17. 'I was in the upper sixth form and I had to decide between rugby or golf.'

Clarke's handicap was plus four and he and Eoghan O'Connell won golf scholarships to Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Clarke left after eight months. 'I wasn't on the team and I wasn't prepared to sit around.' He made a big impression in amateur golf, representing Ireland at boys, youth and senior level and after winning the Spanish Open Amateur Championship and the Irish Amateur in 1990 he turned professional, rejecting the advances of the International Management Group for the much smaller stable of Andrew Chandler's International Sports Management.

At 17st nobody takes a bigger tuxedo than Clarke and his problem, if it is a problem, is that he can annihilate all but the best opposition in a session on the Guinness. 'It's enjoyable,' he said. 'Let's just say I can handle several gallons.' He attempted a diet last summer and lost a few pounds but that was before his victory in Belgium. At Heathrow he bumped into the Northern Ireland football team and they were asking for his autograph.

'A few pints of Guinness took care of the diet and sent me rapidly backwards,' Clarke admitted. 'I'd like to lose a little weight but I've always been a big guy and I'm fairly comfortable with that. It doesn't concern me. There's a bit more weight going behind the ball.' He is one of the longest drivers on the Tour and it was his length and accuracy off the tee, allied to a more confident putting stroke, that made his season so successful.

Clarke, who is coached by Bob Torrance, said: 'I want to tighten up on everything. I am more inconsistent than I'd like and whenever I take a week off it takes me a while to get back in the groove. I've got to keep on improving and I want to win more often. It's not just money I'm playing for. The money's very good although it's very easily spent.'

He has a house in Bushmills on the north coast, the home of the eponymous Irish whiskey and the first distillery to be granted a licence, in 1608. He is buying another house in Manchester.

When he won in Belgium he bought a Porsche and will take delivery of another in March. 'Perks of the job,' he said.

Nor did he forget his family and friends. From Royal Zoute he telephoned the golf club in Dungannon and said the drinks were on him. By around midnight, when word had spread like wildfire and the bar was running dry, the steward called last orders.

(Photograph omitted)