Perfectionist Clarke still has plenty more left in the tank
Darren Clarke’s book charts his life’s highs and lows, with lots of golf in between, writes MALACHY CLERKIN
“People have lots of different opinions of me,” says Darren Clarke. “Arrogant t*** is one. A fella you’d like to have a pint with is another. Thankfully there are more of the latter than the former. But hopefully this is a little bit of an insight into why I’ve turned out the way I’ve turned out.”
We’re talking about his autobiography, An Open Book. Or rather, we’re talking about the thinking behind his autobiography. As somebody who’s won close to €20 million on the European Tour alone in his career, he obviously didn’t do it for the money. So why?
“Well, when I did the last book Heroes All after the Ryder Cup, it was a two-book deal. So the publishers came to me after winning the Open and said it would be a good time to do another one. I could have waited but I decided to carry on and do it. I’ve had so many people ask how I stayed calm and collected during the Open and I thought I may as well stick it down in a book.”
If that doesn’t sound like the most blue-sky-thinking sales pitch in the world, at least nobody can accuse him of spinning a line. Some men write books, others have books thrust upon them. Clarke has spent the guts of 25 years in the public eye and he knows who he is and who he’s supposed to be. “I’m the guy who won the Open and whose wife died of breast cancer,” he says at one point.
Just over half the book is taken up writing about those two events, and what stands out most about them is the detail in which they’re covered. His conversations with Dr Bob Rotella through the week of his British Open victory last July are fascinating and eye-opening to anyone who’s ever picked up a club.
The account of Heather Clarke’s death at just 39 is grim, horrible and deeply moving. Outside of them, however, Clarke flits from subject to subject and year to year without a lot of pause for thought or treatment. Deliberately so, he says.
“If the detail is a bit sketchy in some parts of the book it’s because I didn’t want a book that was 500 pages long. I didn’t want that. It’s deliberately sketchy because who wants to read a book that thick? Yes, it’s my autobiography but it’s more like a synopsis of my autobiography. I have read some other autobiographies and you just drag your heels through them. I wanted something that was an easy read.”
For the most part, that’s what he got; the obvious exception being Heather’s illness and premature death, which he describes in fairly harrowing detail. What comes across most pointedly is just how bewildering an experience it was for a man who had otherwise enjoyed a life of keeping the world where he could see it.
“One of the huge benefits of what I’ve done as a professional golfer and being reasonably successful at it is that I’ve always had the opportunity to dictate what I want to do. I’m in control. But on this, we tried everything. We went everywhere.
“I don’t want that to sound crass but we had the opportunities to go to the best hospitals in the world and get the best treatment and we did everything and tried every route. But nothing could be done. I was powerless and I was watching my wife die in front of my eyes.
“I knew I could deal with it but the harder thing was thinking about the kids. Telling the boys that their mother was about to die is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. They were eight and five at the time. Nothing I’ve ever done has been harder. The Ryder Cup, the Open, that was all a piece of piss compared to that. There couldn’t be anything worse than that. To the day I die, there’ll never be anything like it. There can’t be anything more difficult than that. There just can’t.”
Otherwise, An Open Book tips merrily along. It has as its centrepiece the glorious week in Kent last year that Clarke began as a 150 to 1 outsider. Though he used the gaudy odds as a motivator – a friend ended a text before play started with PTAFW (Prove Them All F**king Wrong) – the truth is when he landed at the course on the Monday, double or triple the odds wouldn’t have been out of line. He was hitting the ball well but his putter was so cold that he didn’t even dare take it out of the bag for the first two days of practice. Spotting Rotella near the putting green the day before play began changed everything.
“Dr Bob is the best of the best. I think everybody knows that I’m a bit mad anyway and one of the problems I have is that I get bored doing the same thing over and over again. Actually no, bored is the wrong word. I get blase about doing the same thing over and over again.
“I find that I’m best when I see Dr Bob once every four or five months to get a refresher course. It just so happened that the timing was perfect that week. I was striking the ball very well but I couldn’t putt to save my life. I was hoping he would be there but I hadn’t made any plans to see him.”
Rotella kept the notes of their meeting not just that day but for the rest of the week as well. When he heard that Clarke was writing an autobiography, he sent the whole lot to him. The result is easily the best passage of the book, a brilliant step-by-step guide to making a talented person get out of their own way. The way Clarke tells it the advice was no more complicated than simply that, yet it cured his putting problems in an afternoon. Makes you wonder why he couldn’t just do that every week.
“I wish I f**king could because I crave success so much. Not for public recognition, not for anyone else but myself. I am forever and ever pushing myself. I’ve played poorly this last while but it doesn’t cost me a thought to go down to Portrush for five, six, seven hours a day on the range there. It’s just part of me. I can’t get away from it.
“Part of my problem is that I’m a perfectionist and anything that isn’t perfect pisses me off. That’s what gets me in a bad state of mind and it’s what had me in a bad state of mind the week before the Open. I was playing well but couldn’t hole a thing.”
Despite currently being knee-deep in the sort of slump that could easily make him hate it all anew, he can’t let it go. The €200,000 or so that he won on tour last year was his third-worst result in his 23 years on tour and would have been his worst but for the fact a couple of WGC tournaments had no cut so he picked up a cheque regardless of how he played.
“That’s been very hard. Obviously in the aftermath of winning the Open, you write off a few months of form. But after that, there’s been no excuses for playing poorly. You see, I don’t do excuses. Other people do that. Other golfers blame other things – I don’t. I blame myself. I’m my own worst critic by far. Too much at times.
“So it’s been incredibly frustrating to play the way I’ve played since I’ve won. But at the same time I’m old enough and wise enough to know that the game is what it is. It’s a very tough game. I possibly didn’t enjoy the good times as much as I should have in terms of turning good form into big wins over the years.
“But I am only 44, which is not that old in golf terms, and I have no doubt that I can still play the game. I’m going through a rough spell but the game gives and the game takes away. I’ve gone from winning the biggest tournament in the game to playing poorly again. But there’s a lot of golf left in me yet and I’m working ridiculously hard to get it out of myself.”
He’s tried everything down the years. He’s done the fitness thing, he’s done the belly putter thing – neither ended particularly well. He’s even taken personality tests to see what makes him tick. Took them three times in 12 years. Same result each time.
“The tests say I’m an introvert. Everybody has this notion of me – well, not everybody but a lot of people – they think I’m an extrovert. There’s this idea that I like to show off. But that’s not me. I’ve been good to myself in the past. People have misunderstood that about me. They look at it and go, ‘Look at that flash twat’.
“But it’s not that. The cars – 15 Ferraris, three Lamborghinis and an assortment of Jags, Bentleys, Mercedes, BMWs and Porches [not all at once] – came from as a kid having pictures of them up on my walls.
Worked my ass off
“When I was able to afford to go and get one, I did. Because I had worked my ass off to get them. That’s why I did it, to mark the fact that I had come far enough to be able to do it.”
So here he is, 44 years old and happy in his work. He swears his golf game will get better and that he will win again and hates the notion that the one Claret Jug will see him out to the end. Still, the fury isn’t what it was.
“My desire and will to succeed at my job is more than ever because of the way I’ve been playing. Is it easier for me to be mellower? No. Do I want to be mellower? Maybe a little bit. Does it make any difference to me one way or the other? No. All through my career, I’ve at times put my golf ahead of my family. But it shouldn’t be that important. So if I’m a little bit more mellow, that means I have a better chance of putting my family ahead of my golf.
“Yes I was selfish and yes it was the way had to be at the time. But you tell me any successful sportsperson who’s not selfish. You have to be. And our job is even worse in that regard because we’re travelling 40 weeks of the year.
“But I’ve definitely changed a lot these past six years. I am a little bit more tolerant. I’m still not f**king great, don’t get me wrong. I don’t suffer fools gladly and I can’t fathom stupidity. But there’s very little grey with me. I’m black and white. If I say I’m going to practise for four hours, I’ll practise for six. I won’t practise for two. But that’s what I’ve got to do to get back to where I want to be.
“I’m not f**ked yet.”