In this case, doubly sorry, because after ballooning in the wind, the ball plonks on the bulkhead in front of the green, ricochets high in the air, then kerplunks into the water. And Clarke continues to cackle, even more loudly, this time at his own expense.
"Darren is a happy-go-lucky sort of guy," says U.S. Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton. On second thought, though, Sutton remembers something which suggests that calling Darren Clarke happy-go-lucky is like calling Michael Jordan a nice guy with a shaved head. "Actually, he's a tenacious competitor. In the 1999 Ryder Cup, I played him in singles and had him down. At the ninth, I had a two-footer to halve the hole, and he made me putt it. As we walked to the tenth tee he said, 'Man, I'm sorry I couldn't give you that, but in the situation we're in now, I just couldn't.' "
It's this dual nature—carefree good guy and cutthroat combatant—that could make Clarke the key to Europe's hopes of retaining the Ryder Cup against Sutton's team at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, in September. He and fellow Irishman Padraig Harrington are two of the top-ranking players on the European side, and many of their less-experienced teammates may be turning to Clarke for their cues. "He's been around a long time, been in enough big tournaments, played in three Ryder Cups," says Thomas Bjorn, another lock to make the team and a good friend of Clarke's. "The last couple of times the leader has been Monty; before that, Faldo, Langer and Woosnam. It's part of the natural progression that somebody like Darren takes over. When we're in the team room, people will turn to him as someone who has seen it all. It will be natural to turn to him for guidance, especially for the new guys on the team."
The most obvious evidence of Clarke's fierce desire is his body. When he stepped onto the first tee the next day for the opening round of the Players, Australian Craig Parry, who hadn't seen him for several months, was taken aback. "You're fading away," he said, except that in his accent, it came out like, "You're figh-ding a-wigh." "You're fighting the wine?" asked American Brad Faxon from the other side of the tee box.
Actually, they both had it partly right. By dint of giving up his beloved Guinness stout and his Marlboro Lights, by being careful about what he eats and adopting a six-day-a-week, two-hour-a-day gym routine, Clarke had shed forty-seven pounds since the fall of 2003—not that he's become slender. But there are planes on his face that weren't visible before.
He's been dedicated to improving his swing, too. "We've been working on widening his stance for a stable foundation and widening his arc, as well as keeping his spine over the ball," says Butch Harmon, who has been coaching Clarke for the past five years. Harmon has occasionally applied an arm brace to his pupil in order to try to keep his swing tight and his hands high at the top. But the swing still has the look of raw talent that was first on display in Northern Ireland twenty-five years ago. Clarke was raised in Dungannon, a small city about forty miles west of Belfast. Athletic genes run in his family. His grandfather Ben Clarke was a professional soccer player for Sheffield United and played in the FA Cup finals at Wembley Stadium in London. His father, Godfrey, was also a talented soccer player.
When Darren was eleven, his father became superintendent at Dungannon Golf Club. "I got the bug for golf caddying for my father," Clarke recalls. "I started playing myself and I couldn't get enough of it. In the summer I played seventy-two holes a day. I decided when I was thirteen that I wanted to become a professional."
There was no teaching pro and no driving range at Dungannon. Clarke, for the most part, taught himself to play on the course. Club members from Dungannon recall both his talent and his competitiveness.
"I was playing matches with him when he was about fourteen," says Boyd Hunter, a contemporary of Clarke's father who is now Dungannon's president. "He was playing off one or two by then. He was a natural player. He just stood up and hit the ball." And by the time he was fifteen, says Hunter, Clarke was long—"prodigiously long."