SANDWICH, ENGLAND | I grew up in a house adjoining a golf course on one of the last hills in the glorious Cotswolds. The course was a wide open one with blessedly few trees. It was not near the sea. After only a few visits to seaside courses I developed a love for links golf that has not diminished since. In fact, it has increased. To me links golf is not just golf; it’s pure golf. It’s red wine to white wine, Ying to Yang, opera to ballet. It’s the way the game began, golf at its most natural, golf at its most enjoyable.
The feel of springy turf underfoot, a whiff of salt coming off the sea, a seagull squawking 100 feet above, a gentle breeze stirring the various grasses that grow so profusely in the rich soil. All these were present at Sandwich last week and never more so than on Friday, a day when, to quote P.G. Wodehouse, “the entire world shouted fore!”
Best of all was the sight of Darren Clarke bowling along the fairways of Royal St George’s, even better the sight of Clarke winning the major championship of his dreams, the Open. Clarke doesn’t so much walk as bustle, like a man chasing his hat that has just been blown off his head. His back is straight, he often has a smile on his face, and he might be cupping a cigarette in the palm of his hand, wanting the benefit of a drag upon it to calm his nerves yet aware that to be seen smoking in public is not a desirable image.
Clarke plays very good golf on inland courses as he demonstrated at the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club near Dublin where he won his three matches. But when I picture him in my mind’s eye, him it is on a links. To me he is the quintessential links golfer, taking a wide stance and using those powerful shoulders of his to pick his ball off the turf without disturbing a blade of grass and sending it low and powerfully towards its target.
His swing is a bit of a roundhouse swing, shorter than Dustin Johnson’s and Miguel Angel Jimenez’s, but there is no wasted movement in it and no loss of energy. It’s the purposeful swing of a man who played a lot of golf when the wind was doing its best to blow him off his feet.
“We have a lot of links courses in Ireland,” Clarke said. “Some of the best in the world, in fact. And I grew up on them. It’s what I do. I love links courses.” And how that showed in that round on Friday, a 68 that took him to 4-under par and a share of the lead that he never relinquished. Watch Clarke on such a day and you admire the speed at which he plays and his friendly demeanour and the sight of him cracking a joke with his playing partners as they wait on a tee. Most of all, you admire his shot-making.
Clarke gave another demonstration of it on this Friday, hitting a cut 7-iron and taking a daring line over the right hand greenside bunker on the 18th, coaxing in a 55-foot putt for an eagle on the seventh, hitting a 60-yard pitch into the 16th green that didn’t rise much above head height, bravely attacking the flagstick on the eighth when peril was all around. This was some golf.
He played rugby and golf as a boy. “He was a good number 8, if a bit slow,” Godfrey Clarke, his father, said. “But he would always let you know he was there.” So he concentrated on his golf and was taken to be given the once over by John Garner, the former Europe Ryder Cup player. Garner took one look at the cheery-faced boy and his swing and said, “Don’t change a thing. You keep going, son.”
And Clarke has done just that ever since, enhancing the game with his skill, making friends wherever he goes and burning the candle at both ends. He has had his sadness, notably when Heather, his wife, died of cancer in 2006 but now he is engaged to be married again, to a former Miss Northern Ireland. He has sold his home in Berkshire, England and returned to live with his two sons in Northern Ireland. Having found renewed personal happiness, he is, at 42, playing some of the best golf of his life.
After Clarke had won the NEC Bridgestone Invitational, a World Golf Championship event, I wrote: “Darren Clarke likes the inside of a Ferrari, the outside of a Cuban cigar and the bottom of a glass of Guinness.” That was in 2003 and there is no reason to alter that assessment now. He remains a wonderful player of links courses and a man’s man.