Most of the 80 children who attended the development golf clinic ahead of the Joburg Open had no real idea who Darren Clarke is.
As part of the City of Johannesburg’s desire to use a major golf tournament as a means of generating spin-offs for the disadvantaged, Clarke joined fellow European professionals Richard Finch and Joakim Haeggman at the Alexandra driving range, where they took kids from that township through some of the basics of golf.
But the only name these kids were interested in was Tiger Woods. For all of his “indiscretions,” Woods remains the face of golf for the black youth of South Africa.
So when one of them asked Finch why Woods is impossible to beat, the English professional pointed out that it’s not always a case of impossible.
“That man right over there has beaten him,” said Finch, pointing to Clarke a few meters down the range.
“Oooooooh, yes,” said Clarke, with a broad smile. And then he held up two fingers. “Twice,” he added. “And in America.”
Suddenly, the children looked upon their instructor in a whole new way.
Clarke has been in South Africa as part of a quick start to a year in which he hopes to play his way back into the top 50 in the world, and back onto his beloved European Ryder Cup team.
But on this day, on a patchy old driving range, he was fully focused on the children in front of him.
I’ve witnessed many such development clinics. There are professionals who embrace it as an opportunity to give something back to a game that has been obscenely good to most of them. And there are those who do it begrudgingly, viewing it as just another thing to get through.
Let’s be honest. The modern professional golfer is pandered to and feted upon to unbelievable levels at times.
When Jack Nicklaus, another great friend of South African golf, once said to me that the greatest danger facing the game is that the players get their purses full too early in the season, I believe he was referring to a danger far beyond just the comfort zone into which these players slip.
You see, while today’s professionals may obey every rule set down by The R&A, some of them often forget the other greatest rules of golf – respect, common decency and perspective.
Perhaps the success of these development clinics is that, for a morning, professional golfers are reminded that their hands being too far forward on their downswings is hardly an unbearable burden to go through life with, compared to the challenges facing a kid living in a shack.
So into this particular morning stepped a five-time Ryder Cup player and multiple tournament champion worldwide. A man who has seen unbelievable highs in the game, and dropped to some staggering lows.
Yes, Clarke can be a bit prickly at times, as most professionals can. He has a bit of the tortured genius about him. And he has his days when he’ll make a double on the last and storm past a TV presenter waiting for a word. But to his credit, I’ve seen him return 15 minutes later, apologize to the presenter, and declare, “Right, I’ve calmed down. Shoot.”
There’s nothing wrong with having a bad day. But there’s everything wrong with forgetting basic manners in the process.
But watching Clarke that day, I had to admit it had been a long time since I had seen a professional golfer of his caliber and status as engaging and as dedicated to the task at hand.
He gave those children exactly the same attention he gave the mayor of Johannesburg when he played with him in the pro-am, and treated each one of them as a potential star in the making.
He was warm, funny and never once gave the impression that this was something he had to do. Back in Northern Ireland, Clarke does amazing work with junior golf through his foundation.
But few know how much he does in South Africa as well. He has provided financial support for one of our young black professionals, and in the recent Africa Open he donated £10,000 of his own money to golf development here.
Watching him work with those kids, at the far end of the driving range away from the spotlight, I saw the most genuine interaction at such a level that I’ve seen in years.
And that’s good enough for me.