It's the Wednesday before the Players Championship and Darren Clarke is in a good mood, even though the cigar he's puffing is neither the Montecristo No. 2 nor the Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona he prefers when he's in Europe. In the United States, he defers to the embargo on Cuban tobacco and makes do with lesser brands.
Clarke is smiling because his practice foursome, which includes Vijay Singh, Jesper Parnevik and Hank Kuehne, has just finished the sixteenth hole at the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium course in Florida and is making the walk to the seventeenth tee. At seventeen, on the day before the Players Championship begins, there's a bit of traditional tomfoolery, the closest-to-the-pin contest for caddies.
There's a swagger to Clarke's walk, which is accentuated by the light checks on the slacks he's wearing, made for him by an Italian tailor in London. They've got both cuffs and a cleft over the ankle, and the tailor has assured him they're very stylish in Milan. As Clarke approaches the tee, the grin turns to a giggle. He pulls a hundred-dollar bill from his wallet and stuffs it into a big jar set on the tee. Some of the jar's contents will go to the winning caddie. The rest will go to charity—this year it's research on ALS, the disease that would shortly claim Bruce Edwards.
Dave Renwick, who carries Singh's bag, is the first up. He puts the bag down and pulls one of his employer's clubs for the 132-yard shot into the wind. He nervously foozles one ball into the water, then another. (If you think it's easy, try carrying a professional's bag for sixteen holes, then hitting that shot without any warm-up, in front of five thousand tittering spectators.) Clarke rides him: "You'd be in the drop zone going for double digits."
Next up is Clarke's caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald gets the ball airborne, but it's a hook hurt by the breeze. Splash. Clarke is chuckling hard now, and the chuckle continues as the remaining caddies have their shots.
Then it's the pros' turn, and Clarke tees up a Titleist with his trademark shamrock logo and waggles a wedge over it. The broad-shouldered Irishman, who stands six-foot-two, was a rugby player in his school days, manning a position called open-side flanker that is roughly akin to strong-side linebacker in American football. He looks like he could still push into a scrum and move bodies. His thighs, like Jack Nicklaus's, are bulky and powerful.
His sheer strength is evident when he swings the club. Clarke's is not the sort of languid action that camouflages his power, in the manner of, say, Ernie Els. From a wide stance, Clarke takes the club back three-quarters of the way to parallel, then moves through the ball with a violent hip turn. When Els swings, spectators are surprised when the ball flies three hundred yards. When Clarke makes contact, they feel sorry for the ball.