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Heavy Heart
July 31, 2006
His mind was elsewhere, but Darren Clarke was simply doing his job by playing this season. Now he'll take time off to tend to more critical matters
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July 31, 2006

Heavy Heart

His mind was elsewhere, but Darren Clarke was simply doing his job by playing this season. Now he'll take time off to tend to more critical matters

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Sometimes the scorecard isn't up to the job. Low numbers imply a mastery of circumstances greater than life allows. High numbers convey calamity where none exists. The golfer signs, the scorekeeper attests, and the card goes into a box. � Darren Clarke exposed the scorecard's shortcomings last week when he shot 67-82 and missed the cut by six strokes at Royal Liverpool. Nowhere on the card was there a place to record the pertinent fact that Clarke's wife, Heather, the mother of his two sons, was reportedly close to losing her four-year struggle with breast cancer. Neither was there a line for the four-time Ryder Cupper from Northern Ireland to pencil in what he told reporters last Thursday evening: "I won't play again for the foreseeable future. I've got other, more pressing things to think about."

"God, the things that he's going through," said Tiger Woods, who could speak from experience, having lost his father, Earl, to cancer in May. "It's not fun to watch someone you love deteriorate right in front of you. It's very, very difficult to handle." For the athlete, Woods could have added, there is the further problem of having to "play" while the loved one fights for life.

But tournament golf is a business, isn't it? Clarke had looked sharp in two tune-ups for the Open Championship, finishing 15th at the Smurfit's European Open and tying for fifth at the Barclay's Scottish Open. In both cases he played mindlessly and well for three rounds--"on autopilot," as he put it--only to falter when the chance for victory presented itself on the final day. "My mind's not always what it needs to be," he explained at Hoylake, meaning, where it needed to be.

"He's always been prone to mood swings, and this situation has obviously added pressure," said Chubby Chandler, Clarke's manager. "I never know how Darren is going to feel until I talk to him after a round."

One thing was never in doubt: Clarke was eager to play at Royal Liverpool. The Open is the tournament he most wants to win, and of the four majors it is the one that best suits his game. He likes fast, firm, windblown courses. He putts well on seaside grasses. He accepts the unpredictable bounces and the quirky lies. "This is pure links, as good as it gets," Clarke said on Thursday, baffled by those who found the ancient layout homely and uninspiring. "I have to say, I don't know what course they were looking at. You can putt it, chip it, hit a five-iron from 40 yards. It's nice to play a tournament where you can land it four yards short of the green if you want to."

Under different circumstances Clarke probably would have traveled directly from Glasgow to Liverpool after the Scottish Open. Instead he flew to his home near London to be with his family, delaying his arrival at Hoylake until lunchtime on Tuesday. That limited his pretournament practice to 11/2 trips around the hot, parched course, which looked as if it might ignite if Clarke got careless with one of his cigarettes. On Thursday morning he hit the ball erratically on the range but found solace on the putting clock, where his stroke felt better than it had for a long time. He told Chandler, "It would be like me to hole everything and play poorly today."

Didn't happen. Playing with Phil Mickelson and a practically invisible Yasuharu Imano, Clarke was one over par at the turn but kept his round alive with some par saves. He then found his form and rewarded the big gallery with four birdies on the march back to the clubhouse. Afterward Clarke revealed that he had gotten a call the previous evening from Conor O'Brien, the former team physician for the Irish Olympic team and a longtime friend. O'Brien thought Clarke's run of Sunday letdowns might be due to dehydration, so he had advised the golfer to imbibe fewer rounds of Guinness and to top off instead with isotonic drinks. "It seemed to work today," said Clarke, lighting another cigarette.

One Irish newsman, aghast at the thought of Clarke's sipping translucent liquids, challenged him. "Are you going to do what the doctor ordered?"

"Just for a change," Clarke said, smiling at last.

The rejoinder reminded everyone of why Clarke, 37, is so popular in Europe. Like the stock Irishman of fiction, he generally faces down trouble with a quip and a call for another pint. Also like the stereotype, he refuses to grow up. He plays with cars (a Bentley, a Jaguar, a BMW and a Ferrari); he swans about in slacks from London's Tony the Tailor, who doesn't mind working in shades of puce or fluorescent green; he invests in racehorses with his friend Lee Westwood. Left to his own devices, Clarke would probably give up tournament golf to indulge his passion for ... golf. "Darren has to be the world's best recreational golfer," says David Howell, a teammate on Europe's victorious 2004 Ryder Cup team. "I had to cut down what we were betting because I was losing three or four hundred quid a week."

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