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Going for Bloke

Since that moment, Clarke has been tempered by two sobering incidents. A few years ago, his wife, Heather, had a bout with breast cancer. "She's fine now," he says. But the event inevitably affected him. "Sometimes, before, I let golf be the be-all and end-all of everything," he says. "I still have the same drive, but it's not life-and-death. There are things a lot more important than golf."

Secondly, in 2003, Clarke took the first-round lead in the Masters with a sixty-six. But because of Thursday rain, the field had to play extra holes on Friday and Saturday. The slog over Augusta's wet hills took more out of Clarke than he felt it should have, and he followed his sixty-six with rounds of seventy-six and seventy-eight. His resolve to lose weight was born there.

So it will be a fitter and more mature Clarke representing Europe in Michigan. Not surprisingly, it will be easy for European captain Bernhard Langer to find partners for him.

Clarke, says Sweden's Parnevik, has an intuitive understanding of the psychology of a match-play partnership: "Darren is very relaxed. If I'm gone on a hole, he takes it. No 'Why did you play that stupid shot?' No 'Why did you leave us there?' It's just, 'My turn to win one for us.' "

For his part, Clarke looks forward to being paired against Woods—or any other American. "Anytime I get the chance to play either with Tiger or against Tiger, it's always good fun. It doesn't matter who I'm playing, I'm going to go out and enjoy it."

He has not been invincible in the Ryder Cup, as his overall record of 4-6-2 suggests. He lost in singles to Phil Mickelson in 1997 and to Sutton in 1999. The last time out, at The Belfry, he halved with Duval. This year, Europe needs Clarke to more consistently display the caliber of golf he's shown against Woods. With Colin Montgomerie struggling with his swing and his personal life, Clarke must be ready to lead.

Bjorn feels that Clarke is ready. "Most guys think, when they come to the Ryder Cup for the first time, that they can just go out and play their game and be comfortable," says the Dane. "But the pressure is so enormous, it's very easy to just fold. You need to understand that, and get the keys to deal with it. And Darren is the kind of guy people listen to."

Clarke says he still expects Montgomerie to be Europe's go-to player. "At some stage in the future," though, he says, "I'd like to have that mantle."

The future may arrive as early as September. Hal Sutton knows one thing about Darren Clarke: "If you see you're playing him," Sutton says, "you better buckle your chin strap."

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