Darren Clarke enjoying Bahamas life but passion for golf still burns bright
Open champion of 2011 combines fly-fishing with practice for competing on Champions Tour
Darren Clarke has made his home At the Abaco Club in the Bahamas where he combines practice with flyfishing.
Perhaps there was a fear, a danger even, that Darren Clarke would become a forgotten man. No fear of that. For much of the past year, the 52-year-old six-feet two-inch bronzed Ulsterman has being castaway on a paradise island in the Caribbean, breaking free to win on the PGA Champions Tour – which he has done on his last two outings – to remind us his presence is as large as it ever was.
For Clarke, in a professional career that has now stretched beyond 30 years, with a major and a couple of WGCs on his CV, image has sometimes been at odds with the hard work behind the scenes. The cigars, the Guinness and champagne lifestyle, the sense of fashion were, in truth, the rewards for a work ethic that often saw him as one of the first men on the practice range and one of the last to leave. As much as anyone in his career, there was the awareness that only hard work would complement the talent.
Yet, it seems rather fitting that, as the Champions Tour has become his primary focus, much of his time is spent these days at his home on the idyllic Great Abaco Island in the northern Bahamas where the championship course – the Abaco Club on Winding Bay – is specially prepared for him to break away for his assaults on the Seniors (over-50s) circuit and where bone fishing on the Marls has become a second obsession.
“Fishing is my big hobby outside of golf; fly fishing, it is the holy grail of fishing. Not only do I drive myself demented trying to play golf but I drive myself demented trying to catch the hardest fish in the ocean on a fly rod,” said Clarke.
“It is all sight fishing, so you never throw the fly until you see fish. You stand on the bow of the skip and you are probably in three, four feet of water. You have got a guide behind you, the guy that fishes with me all the time is called Patrick, and he poles; you can’t make any noise because if you make any noise it spooks the fish. So he poles about to certain flats that we go to and then you are looking out 100 yards looking for shadows, looking for anything moving, that shouldn’t be there. Then you need to be able to make maybe an 80-, 90-foot cast, landing it in maybe a one foot circle in 25 mph crosswinds, so it is difficult to say the least.
“Then, you can do everything perfectly and they just don’t eat; they have a great sense of smell, taste, everything, and if it just doesn’t look right, you have got no chance. They call it permit fever whenever you get hooked on these fish and unfortunately I have it.”
Moments of angst
What was it the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy once said? “The two greatest warriors are patience and time.”
Well, it would seem Clarke – someone who, as we know, has had his moments of angst on golf courses – has learned and embraced both the virtue and concept.
As he put it of his fly fishing, “It is a real challenge, a lot of patience. I don’t know where I get it from, but I am at my most patient when I am on the bow of a skip looking out. It translates into the golf because it is the only time I completely switch off from golf; for fly fishing you have to have beautiful skies and I’m on beautiful water and all that, so I completely get into my fishing and I forget about my golf. I switch off, so I use it a lot to get away from things.”
When he’s not fishing, he’s golfing. “Whenever I’m here, I’m practising and playing every day. Every day I am working, doing little bits and pieces and still working as hard as I’ve ever done, if not even harder, trying to get better because the guys (on the Champions Tour) are really good. If you’re not working at it, you are not going to have success out there at all.”
In fact, it took Clarke time to make his mark on a Champions Tour where Bernhard Langer has seemed ageless, where Phil Mickelson (bouncing between the two tours) made an immediate impact and where the likes of Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen are among those plying their trade.
Clarke first dipped his toes into the Champions Tour shortly after his 50th birthday. August, 2018. Any perception he would hit the ground running was immediately corrected when he competed in the Boeing Classic near Seattle. He was feeling “pretty pleased” after an opening round 68 only to be brushed away by a plethora of hot scoring. Kevin Sutherland shot a second round 60 and Scott Parel won the 54-hole tournament in 18-under. Clarke’s eyes were opened.
Although the courses on the Champions Tour tend to play shorter than the main tour and the rough doesn’t tend to be as severe, the primary task of getting the ball into the hole in as few as shots as possible remained: “If you don’t go low, you haven’t got a chance. It took me a while to figure out what I needed to do and how I was going about doing that.”
In fact, it took Clarke two years to make his breakthrough. Last November, finally, he won the Timber Tech Championship at Boca Raton in Florida by a shot from Langer and Furyk. But nothing is ever not complicated with Clarke: the win got him into the Charles Schwab Cup in Arizona the next week, but he couldn’t travel as his US visa was due to expire in the days before.
“So I had to leave the US (returning to Abaco). With all the Covid restrictions that were going on, all the embassies around the world had shut and it had to be an in-person to person interview to get the visa,” he explained. Finally, he managed to get a visa issued through the embassy in Nassau (capital of the Bahamas) and it meant he could resume playing at the Mitsubishi Electric tournament at Hualalai in Hawaii where he covered the back nine in 30 to sign for 64 and a 21-under total, two shots clear of Goosen.
Clarke had rediscovered the art of winning, and his back-to-back successes (earning paydays of $300,000 and $310,000 respectively) brought with it a special thanks to his friends back in Abaco – “Matt and Kevin and John and Clint” – who have become his regular playing companions, the scramble format sharpening his game.
“I have been very fortunate to find myself (in Abaco) and to become an ambassador for the club. The golf course is sensational, a proper championship golf course. The practice facilities are second to none. The whole place from the first day we ever got here, we never locked our front door at night. It is very safe place as well. It ticks all the boxes.”
This weekend Clarke is back competing, in the Chubb Classic in Naples, Florida, which effectively kickstarts his season in a year which will also see him return to the scene of his greatest triumph, his 2011 Open Championship win at Royal St Georges in Kent, England.
“I haven’t been back since. If I was to hazard a guess, I could be doing the same thing as I did at Royal Portrush and maybe hitting the first tee shot on the Thursday morning as the champion from the last time. That’s fine by me, I have got no problems with that, it is a huge honour.”
Clarke’s competitive focus, though, these days is on the Champions Tour and the Senior Open at Sunningdale the week after Sandwich is one of the targets.
“I’m choc-a-bloc from now on, a very busy schedule. The real part of our tournament season starts now . . . my whole focus these days is on the Champions Tour. We have got the British Seniors Open at Sunningdale the week after which I am really looking forward to as well, having lived over that way and played a lot of golf there. My life and my golf is on the Champions Tour at the moment so that is where I am focusing on. It is a very tough tour and you have got to play well to keep your card. I am focusing on finishing as high up that list as I possibly can.”
Clarke backs McIlroy to get back to his best with Cowen
“If you look at what Rory has achieved in the game with Michael Bannon, it is sensational. We place Rory - and rightly so - on such a pedestal because he is the most gifted player in the world. We place him so high there and expect so much from him all the time, and with that amount of talent I can only imagine how frustrated he gets whenever he is not quite performing the way he wants.
“I know Pete (Cowen) every well. He has helped me to win the Open, many tournaments around the world, and his knowledge combined with Rory’s talent, I can only see that helping him massively.
“Rory is the most talented, naturally gifted player in the world. We expect all the time from him and it is hard. Rory has his own expectations, never mind everybody else. He desperately wants to complete the grand slam at Augusta and if there is ever a golf course that’s built for him it would be Augusta. I want to see Rory McIlroy at full steam again, there is nobody better when he is on. I love watching Rory when he plays his best.”