As it worked out, Wake Forest's loss was a gain for Europe's Ryder Cup chances. Clarke returned to Ireland and spent a couple of years playing in and winning amateur golf tournaments. "All the amateur tournaments when I was growing up were match play," Clarke says. "That's why I got such a liking for it."
It's the uncertainty of the format that appeals to him. "It's not always who plays the best golf, but who can get it done coming down the stretch. The key is knowing when to attack and when to hit it in the middle of the green. I try not to get too aggressive. It's very easy to try to force the issue early on to build up a lead. I've done it myself and it hasn't worked out for the best. So I try to hang about for a while and see how I'm playing and how my opponent is playing and just wait and measure it all up."
Clarke turned pro in 1990 and won his first European Tour event in 1993. He's won thirteen times since then, including the 2000 Accenture Match Play Championship, where, in the finals, he established the credential that marks him as a key European at Oakland Hills. Pitted against Tiger Woods, who was entering the invincible stage of his career, Clarke "hung about" for the first eighteen holes, hitting fairways and greens and concluding the morning round all square. He stuck his nose in front with a conceded birdie after Woods bogeyed the twenty-second hole and finished the American off on the thirty-third hole, 4 and 3. (When asked what he'd do with the $1,000,000 first prize, Clarke grinned. "Spend it," he said.)
He won with different tactics in the opening match of the 2002 Ryder Cup at the Belfry in England. American captain Curtis Strange, seeking to set a dominating tone, sent Woods out with Paul Azinger. European captain Sam Torrance countered with Clarke and Denmark's Bjorn. This time it was Clarke, not Woods, who set the pace. He hit his first approach shot to eight feet, then sank the putt to give Europe the lead. He birdied two and three. By the end of the match, he and Bjorn were ten under par. They had a one-up triumph over the Americans, who were nine under.
To Clarke, that match wasn't even the best he's played against Woods in the Ryder Cup. "I think the match I played at Brookline a few years ago was still better," he says. In that one, he was paired on Friday afternoon with Lee Westwood against Woods and David Duval. Woods, of course, was the top-ranked player in the world. Duval was then number two.
Clarke made six birdies that day, including the one that gave the European duo its ultimate margin. After a long drive, he hit a lovely wedge to the back tier of the seventeenth green, leaving a tricky putt of about seven feet. Clarke was cool enough to smile as he and Westwood read the line. Then he stepped up and holed it.