After dispensing advice, Clarke set to start The Open
July 15, 2019
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
- Darren Clarke meets with the media on Monday at Royal Portrush. (Francois Nel/Getty Images)
PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – Three weeks ago, Darren Clarke was asked by The R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers to hit the opening tee shot early Thursday morning at The Open Championship.
There was no hesitation in the Northern Irishman’s response.
“A definite yes,” Clarke said.
It won’t be a ceremonial tee shot – after all, Clarke is in the 156-man field thanks to his Open win in 2011. His shot off the 421-yard par-4 first at 6:35 a.m. local time will count.
But there is no more fitting player in the field to start play in the first Open held in Northern Ireland since 1951, when Royal Portrush last played host. Clarke is a resident of Portrush and his win in 2011 was the first for a Northern Irishman since Portrush native Fred Daly won the Claret Jug in 1947. He calls Royal Portrush the “best golf course in the world.”
Clarke’s Open win, which came on the heels of consecutive U.S. Open wins by Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell (2010) and Rory McIlroy (2011), were instrumental in helping to convince The R&A to return the Open to Royal Portrush. McIlroy, in fact, won all four of his majors before the official announcement was made by The R&A in October 2015.
Clark also credited Irishman Padraig Harrington’s three major wins – including back-to-back Open wins in 2007-08 – as key to the resurgence of Irish golf.
“It was Padraig started it before that, when he won all his majors,” said the 50-year-old Clarke, the oldest of the six players in the field born on the island of Ireland. Harrington, McDowell, McIlroy, Shane Lowry and amateur James Sugrue – who joins Clarke in the opening threesome with American Charley Hoffman – are the others.
Of course, the political climate also has improved since the Good Friday agreement in 1998 led to an end of the Troubles that had plagued Northern Ireland since the late 1960s (although small-scale violence still flares up).
Clarke recalled the time in 1986 – he was still in his late teens – when he worked at a club. He was filling up small bottles with mixers when the club received a bomb scare. Clarke and all the others in the club hurriedly left the building.
Thirty minutes later, the bomb went off. “The place was flattened,” Clarke said.
“That was life in Northern Ireland,” he added. “Bombs were going off quite frequently. And a lot of people, unfortunately, paid a heavy penalty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that was our life back there at that stage.”
Thirty-three years later, he’s now the unofficial ambassador of this Open Championship. Many players getting their first look at Royal Portrush have sought his advice. Adam Scott, still seeking his first Open win after so many near-misses, played three practice rounds with Clarke.
“He's gone out of his way to spend way too much time with me,'' Scott told the Associated Press. ''I love watching how he plays the links he grew up on, to see what he thinks and how he navigates. He's been incredibly helpful. It's nice to have a good level of comfort to go play the tournament.''
Clarke was asked about all the advice he’s been dispensing. “Probably told them too much, really,” he smiled.
But just like the invitation to hit the first tee shot, Clarke doesn’t hesitate when asked how to navigate Royal Portrush. He noted the importance of finding the right angles and being committed to shots, pointing out the areas from which to attack. He keeps stressing the need to hit fairways. “If you’re not in the fairways,” he said, “you’re going to struggle to get around.”
And if the winds don’t kick up as much as they usually do, he warned players to expect more challenging pin placements.
“The thing about Royal Portrush, it’s a fair golf course,” he said. “If you play well around Portrush, you should have the opportunity to score well. If you’re missing too many shots, you’re not going to get around Portrush. That’s the way it is.”
On Thursday at 6:35 a.m. – the sun will have already been up for approximately 90 minutes – Clarke will get things started in earnest. The gallery, even at that early time, should be substantial. The Open was sold out 11 months ago. Golf fans in Northern Ireland have waited 68 years for this championship.
Clarke, so proud that his country is once again the host, will be emotional. But he won’t be misty-eyed. After all, he has a job to do.
“I just hope I manage to get one going straight down the fairway,” he said.