Clarke now delivering on rich promise

 

When Darren Clarke had a house-warming at his new Sunningdale residence last May, the guests included Colin and Eimear Montgomerie. Their presence reflected a relationship that has been highly significant in the Tyrone-man's rise to a prominence in world golf, highlighted by yesterday's triumph.

In fact it dates back to 1993 at Valderrama. That was the first time for Clarke to be on the presentation podium for the Volvo Masters, in which he claimed the runner-up cheque. And beside him was Montgomerie, who won the tournament to capture his first of six Vardon Trophies as leader of the Order of Merit.

For Clarke, it marked a breakthrough into the top-10 of the merit table, where he has risen from eighth, to fourth and now to second in the last three seasons. And the big Scot generously acknowledged this impressive progress as the two men were back on the Volvo Masters podium - at Montecastillo.

Looking across at Clarke, Montgomerie said to an interviewer: "He's good. He's very very good. He has as much talent as anyone in world golf." But he couldn't resist adding: "He's got to learn to use it."

Two years ago, when Clarke's tournament career seemed to have become stuck in a rut, Montgomerie caused him to bristle with some well-pointed public prodding. Effectively, the older player labelled his gifted rival as an under-achiever.

The response was dramatic. Only a few weeks later, Clarke shot a final round of 63 at the Berliner club to win the German Masters for his second triumph on tour. It became a significant step on the road to Ryder Cup honours last year at Valderrama where, almost predictably, Montgomerie again loomed large in his fortunes.

Bitterly resentful towards skipper Seve Ballesteros over being left out of the opening day's play, Clarke's morale was given an extremely timely lift. In the event, he partnered Montgomerie at the top of the Europe's Saturday order to a one-hole four-ball victory over Fred Couples and Davis Love.

Against that background, it seemed unthinkable that Clarke would be sharing the fairways with anyone other than Montgomerie when his next European triumph came last May. This was in the Benson and Hedges International at The Oxfordshire, where he shot a closing 67 to beat the Scot into a share of fifth place.

Montgomerie was right: Clarke has been an under-achiever, but there are clear indications that he may be making up for lost time. No fewer than nine top-10 finishes this season, include two victories and runner-up position on three occasions - in the Deutsche Bank Open, the Dutch Open and the Scandinavian Masters.

In 18 European tournament appearances, he played 67 rounds in a stunning total of 157 strokes under par. A measure of that achievement is that second rounds of 75 caused him to miss the halfway cut in both the Irish Open and the British Open. In fact, his failure at Birkdale, with so much money at stake, can now be seen as a severe blow to his Order of Merit aspirations.

Meanwhile, in becoming only the second Irishman to win the Volvo Masters, he has emulated the achievement of Ronan Rafferty in 1989. Interestingly, that success came at the end of Rafferty's eighth full season on tour, just as with Clarke. A crucial difference, however, was that the Warrenpoint player held off the challenge of Nick Faldo to win the Vardon Trophy.

But Clarke could now be about to deliver seriously on a prodigious talent which swept opponents aside in a sparkling amateur career. Those were carefree days when he had blond highlights in his hair and a sinister-looking, black-clothed caddie by his side.

Through bitter experience, he was forced to become a fully paid-up subscriber to the Bobby Jones notion that the most important inches in golf are those between a player's two ears. Even after his success at The Oxfordshire, he admitted: "There's always been one major piece missing and that's been my attitude. It's been the main thing that's been holding me back."

But he could honestly add: "The message is beginning to get through. I'm now more patient than I've been in the past when I went bull-headed at the game, desperate to try and make things happen."

Two major changes this year have been the open recognition of that weakness . . . and the birth, 13 weeks ago, of his baby son, Tyrone Benjamin. The responsibility and obvious joy of fatherhood in effect put the finishing touch to a sharply contrasting experience early in the year.

Prior to his debut in the US Masters at Augusta last April, Clarke took advice from the leading American sports psychologist, Bob Rotella. The consultation had the immediate effect of contributing to a share of eighth position at Augusta. Even more significant in my view, however, was the way Clarke played in the MCI Classic at Hilton Head a week later.

After an opening, one-over-par round of 72, he seemed certain to miss the cut when the struggle continued on the second day. Instead of taking the soft option of an early departure, however, Clarke displayed a new-found pride in his craft when finishing the round in birdie, par, birdie, to be one stroke inside the cut.

As it happened, the struggle was to continue over the closing two days and he eventually shared 45th place for a modest return of $5,563. But, to use an American term, he discovered the importance of "stick-ability", of accepting that all golfing days are not going to be fair and rewarding.

That was the crucial change of attitude which allowed Clarke to overcome a potentially dispiriting second round of 73 at Montecastillo last Friday, when he took a rather undignified tumble down the leader-board. And his reward was a stunning final 36 holes of 131 - 13 under par.