Heavy Heart

His mind was elsewhere, but Darren Clarke was simply doing his job by playing this season. Now he'll take time off to tend to more critical matters
July 30, 2006

Sometimes thescorecard isn't up to the job. Low numbers imply a mastery of circumstancesgreater than life allows. High numbers convey calamity where none exists. Thegolfer signs, the scorekeeper attests, and the card goes into a box. ¶ DarrenClarke exposed the scorecard's shortcomings last week when he shot 67-82 andmissed the cut by six strokes at Royal Liverpool. Nowhere on the card was therea place to record the pertinent fact that Clarke's wife, Heather, the mother ofhis two sons, was reportedly close to losing her four-year struggle with breastcancer. Neither was there a line for the four-time Ryder Cupper from NorthernIreland to pencil in what he told reporters last Thursday evening: "I won'tplay again for the foreseeable future. I've got other, more pressing things tothink about."

"God, thethings that he's going through," said Tiger Woods, who could speak fromexperience, having lost his father, Earl, to cancer in May. "It's not funto watch someone you love deteriorate right in front of you. It's very, verydifficult to handle." For the athlete, Woods could have added, there is thefurther problem of having to "play" while the loved one fights forlife.

But tournamentgolf is a business, isn't it? Clarke had looked sharp in two tune-ups for theOpen Championship, finishing 15th at the Smurfit's European Open and tying forfifth at the Barclay's Scottish Open. In both cases he played mindlessly andwell for three rounds--"on autopilot," as he put it--only to falterwhen the chance for victory presented itself on the final day. "My mind'snot always what it needs to be," he explained at Hoylake, meaning, where itneeded to be.

"He's alwaysbeen prone to mood swings, and this situation has obviously addedpressure," said Chubby Chandler, Clarke's manager. "I never know howDarren is going to feel until I talk to him after a round."

One thing wasnever in doubt: Clarke was eager to play at Royal Liverpool. The Open is thetournament he most wants to win, and of the four majors it is the one that bestsuits his game. He likes fast, firm, windblown courses. He putts well onseaside grasses. He accepts the unpredictable bounces and the quirky lies."This is pure links, as good as it gets," Clarke said on Thursday,baffled by those who found the ancient layout homely and uninspiring. "Ihave to say, I don't know what course they were looking at. You can putt it,chip it, hit a five-iron from 40 yards. It's nice to play a tournament whereyou can land it four yards short of the green if you want to."

Under differentcircumstances Clarke probably would have traveled directly from Glasgow toLiverpool after the Scottish Open. Instead he flew to his home near London tobe with his family, delaying his arrival at Hoylake until lunchtime on Tuesday.That limited his pretournament practice to 11/2 trips around the hot, parchedcourse, which looked as if it might ignite if Clarke got careless with one ofhis cigarettes. On Thursday morning he hit the ball erratically on the rangebut found solace on the putting clock, where his stroke felt better than it hadfor a long time. He told Chandler, "It would be like me to hole everythingand play poorly today."

Didn't happen.Playing with Phil Mickelson and a practically invisible Yasuharu Imano, Clarkewas one over par at the turn but kept his round alive with some par saves. Hethen found his form and rewarded the big gallery with four birdies on the marchback to the clubhouse. Afterward Clarke revealed that he had gotten a call theprevious evening from Conor O'Brien, the former team physician for the IrishOlympic team and a longtime friend. O'Brien thought Clarke's run of Sundayletdowns might be due to dehydration, so he had advised the golfer to imbibefewer rounds of Guinness and to top off instead with isotonic drinks. "Itseemed to work today," said Clarke, lighting another cigarette.

One Irish newsman,aghast at the thought of Clarke's sipping translucent liquids, challenged him."Are you going to do what the doctor ordered?"

"Just for achange," Clarke said, smiling at last.

The rejoinderreminded everyone of why Clarke, 37, is so popular in Europe. Like the stockIrishman of fiction, he generally faces down trouble with a quip and a call foranother pint. Also like the stereotype, he refuses to grow up. He plays withcars (a Bentley, a Jaguar, a BMW and a Ferrari); he swans about in slacks fromLondon's Tony the Tailor, who doesn't mind working in shades of puce orfluorescent green; he invests in racehorses with his friend Lee Westwood. Leftto his own devices, Clarke would probably give up tournament golf to indulgehis passion for ... golf. "Darren has to be the world's best recreationalgolfer," says David Howell, a teammate on Europe's victorious 2004 RyderCup team. "I had to cut down what we were betting because I was losingthree or four hundred quid a week."

Since his wifefell ill, Clarke's devilry has lost its edge, blunted by the real demons ofimpending loss and grief. He played only 12 European tour events in 2005, threeshort of the required 15, but was granted a special release to keep his tourcard. This year he has withdrawn from several tournaments, including the ShellHouston Open, to be with his wife. His stature, however, seems to havegrown.

The best evidenceof that came in May at the Nissan Irish Open, during which Clarke turned headswith an exceptional act of sportsmanship. Forced to interrupt his third roundat the K Club when bad weather stopped play, Clarke returned the next morningto find that his lie in the rough had improved overnight--so much so that hecould easily have gone for the green. (Rules officials, in fact, told him hewas free to do just that.) Clarke elected instead to wedge out to the fairway,as he would have done if the storm hadn't intervened. The gallant act hurtClarke's chances of winning for the second time on Irish soil--he wound upthird, two strokes behind Thomas Bjorn--but did win him a legion of fans andthe European tour's shot-of-the-month trophy. Clarke has since put the trophyon auction at darrenclarke.com, pledging the proceeds to breast cancerresearch. (The high bid, as of last weekend, was £5,500, with bidding set toend on Aug. 11. "Darren Clarke," the website disclaims, "reservesthe right to bid for the item himself.")

"The fact thathe's been in contention the last couple of weeks is absolutely remarkable,"Woods said at Hoylake, adding appropriately, "and so is Heather, aremarkable person." Amy Mickelson, following her husband and Clarke duringthe second round, agonized over the Clarke boys, Tyrone, 8, and Conor, 6,describing them as "old enough to understand but young enough to need theirmommy."

The scorecard,meanwhile, had to be filled. Clarke bogeyed the 1st hole on Friday afternoonand then double-bogeyed the 2nd to fall back to even par. For the rest of theafternoon he played distractedly as his iron shots drifted off line and hisputts meandered. Bogeys at five and seven. A birdie putt that hung on the lipat nine, causing him to sit on his bag and reflect. "It doesn't matter atall in the bigger scheme of things," he had said on Thursday, and now, as acool afternoon breeze blew out to the Dee, he said as much without opening hismouth. A bogey at 12 produced a vacant gaze. A shot into a revetted bunker atthe par-3 13th, which left him no option but to escape sideways, left him withan amused smile and another double bogey.

The gallery neverleft him. They called his name. They cheered at the 16th, where Clarke made hisonly birdie of the round. A somber Chandler, meanwhile, asked the mediainterested in Clarke if they would spare the golfer the ordeal of a postroundinterview. "He desperately wanted to get here, and he got here,"Chandler said. "It really doesn't matter after that." It was neitherthe time nor the place to ask the Irishman if he would be back by September,when the Ryder Cup teams will meet outside Dublin.

So while Clarkewas still out on the course, his friend and manager issued a short statement onhis behalf. "Now the priority is to be with my wife and family," itread, "and to support them in every way that I can."

An hour later,after signing his card, Clarke lingered for only a minute or so by theclubhouse. A friend squeezed his shoulder. Amy Mickelson gave him a sympathetichug. Then Clarke was into his car and gone.

His scorecard hadthis to say:

5 6 4 4 6 3 5 43-40 5 4 5 5 5 4 4 5 5-42-82

PHOTOPhotograph by Robert Beck HOMEFRONT
After missing the cut at Hoylake, Clarke said he would remain with his familyfor the foreseeable future.
PHOTODARREN CARROLL/ICON SMI TOUGHFIGHT
Heather (shown at the 2004 Ryder Cup) has been battling breast cancer for morethan four years.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)