Ryder Cup captain, MENA Golf Tour patron and without doubt one of the busiest men in golf. Thankfully, Darren Clarke was kind enough to clear his diary for this exclusive interview with Golf Digest Middle East
Interview by Robbie Greenfield
Photos by Farooq Salik
arren Clarke has a lot on his plate. On the day Europe’s Ryder Cup captain paid a visit to our studio accompanied by golf in DUBAi’s David Spencer, he had stepped off a plane that morning and headed straight for the Host Cities event in which he was a guest speaker. Earlier on in the month, he competed on the MENA Golf Tour for the first time this year and gave a string of press conferences as its patron, but not before fulfilling his latest media duties at Hazeltine with his opposing USA captain (and close friend) Davis Love III.
Over the last decade, the Ryder Cup has not just established itself as golf’s grandest spectacle, but ballooned into a global juggernaut that ranks among the greatest sporting showpieces on the planet. As such, the role of captain carries more stringent demands than ever before. For those that think these guys get a little too much credit for deciding the wildcards and figuring out the pairings, consider that Darren Clarke has barely gone a day since his appointment in February without fulfilling some kind of media obligation or other commitment.
On top of that, the 47-year-old is playing as much globe-trotting golf as ever. His schedule over the next month takes him from Dubai to Australia, then back to Vietnam for the Asian Tour’s Ho Tram Open and finally to Thailand. “Yeah, my airmiles are looking ok,” he says with the broad smile that has illuminated so many of the game’s biggest stages over the course of an illustrious career. “Don’t suppose I could trouble you for a double espresso?”
Clarke is a genial man who carries the air of one who has already conquered his most burning career ambitions. A Ryder Cup stalwart who played in five consecutive teams and has been a vice-captain on two, Clarke won the major that meant the most to him, The Open Championship, in something of a bolt from the blue in 2011. Four years on, he became one of the proudest golfers on the planet when the R&A announced that his home course, Royal Portrush, could be kept from the Open rota no longer. Clarke has a burning desire to continue Europe’s stunning run of Ryder Cup domination, but he reserves an equal passion for Portrush, a ‘sensational’ course he insists is about to get “even better”.
We sat down with one of the busiest men in golf, coffee in hand, to talk MENA Golf Tour, his hopes for Hazeltine and The Open’s imminent return to one of the game’s most fabled links courses.
You’re the patron for the MENA Golf Tour and a long-time friend of ‘golf in Dubai’. How much admiration do you have for the work that Mohamed and his team have done to promote both the game of golf and the city?
Mohamed [Juma Buamaim] and David Spencer, the work they’ve put in to develop the MENA Golf Tour has been incredible. To give young kids the opportunity to compete, you can practice all you want but unless you’re competing against other players in tournaments, that’s where you really progress. With the advent of a tour school, hopefully it will get them further down the road for getting world ranking points for the MENA Tour, and with that being the case, you then create the opportunity to get some local [arab national] golfers in contention for playing in the Olympics. And that’s really the whole idea behind the MENA Tour, to get more locals playing, and with world ranking points, that may inspire a few more locals to take up the game and ultimately become winners on the MENA Tour.
You played in a MENA tour event yourself at tower links at the start of November. Did you get to offer any advice to the players that week?
I got a bit of time with them after the tournament was over, and just really told them how I practiced, just a few little tips on what I thought they could do to improve. I also gave them a little bit of a lecture on slow play, because that is the bane of professional golf. It was slow out there, but thankfully Mohamed and Spenny [David Spencer] are agreeing with me and the MENA Tour are going to take action to make it not only the fastest growing tour in the world, but the fastest playing tour in the world. It’s every tour in the world that’s getting too slow, so the sooner we address it and eradicate it, the better.
Most guys on the MENA Tour have great technique. is it only belief they’re missing?
Well that’s competition. If you take a look here in the UAE, you’ve got some of the best facilities, not to mention best golf courses, in the world. There’s no reason why the golfers from this region can’t get better but it’s about developing the belief in your own game. When you’ve got to hole a 10-footer in tournament play, or hit a high soft lob over a bunker, you can practice those shots all day long but until you get into pressurised situations, that’s when you find out how productive that practice has been.
Describe your emotions when you got the call to confirm the Ryder Cup captaincy for 2016. All of us involved in golf were anticipating it, but was it a nervous few days for you?
Yes, because there were a couple of other very worth candidates in the reckoning in Miguel Ángel Jiménez and Thomas Bjørn, and you’re never quite sure which way the committee’s going to vote. Certainly I was elated when asked to be Ryder Cup captain. It’s the biggest honour the European Tour can bestow on one of their members, and it was a long wait but very worth it.
You’re taking the helm during a period of extraordinary european dominance, 8 wins in the last 10 Ryder Cups. Does that bring added pressure, or do you see it as a big advantage?
There’s always pressure in the Ryder Cup. At some stage, the Americans are going to get the run of the ball as well. We’ve had it these past few Ryder Cups, but it ebbs and it flows, and that’s what happens. The players are so finely matched that it comes down to who holes the putt at the right time and who grabs the momentum. Obviously I’m hoping that Europe get the run of the ball again at Hazeltine, and I’ll be doing my utmost to help the team as best as I possibly can.
When you look at how evenly matched the teams always are, how much do you attribute Europe’s success to great play at the right time, and how much is it down to all the intangibles we always talk about, like team spirit and an ability to embrace the competition?
The European guys grow up travelling the world with one another, and tend to be closer than the American guys. We’re a global tour. If you go to a professional golf tournament, most of the players will stay in, if not the same hotel, then just a handful. Whereas the American players are all spread out, everybody does their own thing over there. But in saying that, a putt lipping in as opposed to a putt lipping out, that makes all the difference. My recent predecessors as captains have all done wonderful jobs, and I hope I can emulate that. I’m there to help the team feel at ease and get them playing as well as they can.
Is it fair to say the Europeans have had a fluid model of vice-captains and captains, while the Americans have taken a more ad-hoc approach in the past?
Nobody likes losing, and the Americans have been on a harsh run. They’ve lost too many in a row and they will be baying to get it back again. Davis [Love III] is a very good friend of mine. He probably felt hard done by at Medinah, with that unbelievable comeback from Europe on the Saturday afternoon and Sunday, but we’re going there with the full intention of bringing the Ryder Cup back home with us again, and we’ll do our utmost to do so.
Are you expecting the core of that European team to be the same as the guys who won so well at Gleneagles?
I think you’ve got a few young guys coming through as well. Matt Fitzpatrick, the rookie, has had a wonderful year. Danny Willett has been fantastic. Bernd Wiesberger too. There’s so many young guys that have been playing great golf. It was good to see Victor Dubuisson finding his form again last month. So while I would expect the majority of the core of that team to be the same again, there will be a few changes.
Most of the recent European rookies have risen to the occasion, particularly Jamie Donaldson last year. What attributes do you need to be a good Ryder Cup player?
Belief. That’s it. Belief in your own abilities to perform under the utmost pressure, because that’s what the Ryder Cup is all about.
Hazeltine has hosted two PGA Championships in the last 15 years, but what kind of Ryder Cup course will it be?
They’ve made some changes to the routing to make it better primarily for spectators. I played two majors there, and I think it’s a wonderful golf course. It’s very fair, and out in front of you. I’m expecting Davis to set it up to make loads of birdies. I don’t think they will mess with the golf course too much, it will just come down to whichever team can make the most birdies is going to win.
How much harder is it to be the away side? What advice will you give your players if the home support gets a little rowdy?
Home support is massive, and it always plays a part. Obviously Davis is going to have that at Hazeltine and we’re not. There will be plenty of spectators rooting for Europe out there though. There’s no doubt it’s much more difficult being the away team, but it’s what makes the Ryder Cup so special.
How do you think the emotions of captaining a team will differ from being a player?
That will be a hard one. I found that difficult as a vice-captain, watching the guys hit the shots, so I don’t know how it will feel as a captain. I’ll be out there watching the guys, and if a shot doesn’t come off, I’ll be as disappointed as that player will be. But at the end of the day, they’re trying their utmost, so who am I to say something untoward to a player when they’re leaving all their effort and their energy out there? I understand that, because I’ve been there as a player. I’ve hit poor shots at the wrong time in Ryder Cups, all of us who have played the event have. It’s how you accept them and how you carry on that can make the difference between that point going in your direction or the other way.
We had some incredible news for irish golf and Northern Ireland in particular with the announcement of Portrush for the open in 2019. How much persistence and determination was required to get that decision over the line?
Well, we didn’t get it over the line; we prompted the R&A. The decision came down to whether the R&A had enough belief that Royal Portrush could handle [staging] the biggest tournament in the world, and thankfully they came to a positive conclusion. I think The Open in 2019 will probably sell out quicker than any Open in history. The changes the R&A are making with course architect Martin Ebert are wonderful. I’ve gone round the course a couple of times with Martin, and the two new holes are going to be brilliant. There are new tees, bunkers and so many other improvements to what is already a sensational golf course. I think it’s going to present a fair challenge to the players. When the guys played there a few years ago in the Irish Open, even though it was horrible inclement weather, it was their favourite golf course all year. Martin is going to make it even better again, which is a big ask for a wonderful Harry Colt design already, but that’s what he’s doing.
The current 17th and 18th holes will make way for two brand new holes designed on what is now the valley course. Is it fair to say the current closing holes aren’t really in keeping with the rest of the layout?
Versus the rest of the layout, I wouldn’t say they were nondescript, but a little bland perhaps. Those holes were not what they wanted in terms of a climax, and by taking those two new holes from the Valley course – a wonderful par 5 and a brilliant par 4 coming back again – it’s only going to enhance the golf course. If Royal Portrush doesn’t go back into the top five of the world rankings after all these changes, I’ll be amazed.
In terms of favourite holes, we talk about the fifth, and the par 3 14th, calamity corner. Which ones stand for you?
All of them! I live there. That’s where I play, and that’s where I practice. Harry Colt all those years ago when constructing the golf course, built a lot of greens into natural amphitheatres. And that’s what you get at Royal Portrush.
We saw over 100,000 spectators turn out for the Dubai duty free irish open at royal county down back in late may. That event has had an incredible renaissance. How much of an impact can Rory’s involvement continue to have?
When the World No.1 [as he was at the time] is hosting the event, that’s going to be massive. Rory is doing a great job in pushing that event. The Irish Open had a prestigious slot on the rota when I first joined the tour in 1990, then went a little bit quiet as a lot
of tournaments have done, but with Rory’s involvement these past few years it’s started going back in the right direction again, so long may that continue.
Irish golf as a whole has had this incredible golden period, starting with Padraig Harrington and yourself and going right through to Rory. Do you see that continuing to develop?
I think we’ve been fortunate in Ireland over the past decade. We need to do whatever it takes to make sure that continues. We do have more talent there but it needs to be nurtured and helped along. If we can all contribute in our little ways hopefully we are going to unearth the next Rory, or GMac.
Peaking of Rory, he’s had the gauntlet thrown down by Jordan Spieth and also Jason Day. Will that be good for him, and do you still view him as the best player in the world?
Rory is unquestionably the most naturally gifted player on the planet. But in terms of the other two and some of the golf they’ve played this year, it has been incredible. Jordan Spieth’s putting stats in 2015 are off the chart, I’m not sure we’ve ever seen anything like it. Jason just bombs it high and straight, and has no weaknesses either. You’ve got Rickie Fowler as well, the finish he had at Sawgrass this year [to win The Players] was just sensational, you couldn’t script it. I think the state of the game at the very top is wonderful. The more competitively matched they are the healthier it is, and the more interest people are going to have in watching and supporting it.
This time last year Rory had separated himself from the rest with his performances, but he’s now in a real dogfight heading into 2016.
You have to remember he’s been injured, so a lot of his season has been taken away from him. Coming back when he did, OK he was 100 percent fit but he had lost a lot of tournament play at a crucial stage in the season. But I think it will push him to get back to playing the sort of golf that he was in late 2014.
What was your reaction to the news that Tiger has undergone a second procedure in as many months on his back?
You know, he’s getting old. Not quite as old as myself, but he’s getting old, and as you get old you get injured. We all want Tiger back out on tour again, he still brings a special presence, and we want a fit and healthy Tiger playing well. He’s brought so much to the game, and when it comes to the modern generation, they wouldn’t be in the position they’re in now if it weren’t for Tiger.
Next year is a Ryder Cup year but it’s also an Olympic year. what kind of impact do you expect the Olympic inclusion to have on the game and will it be more important for developing nations?
I’m sitting on the fence with it a bit, because when I grew up watching the Olympics, they used to represent the pinnacle of any amateur athlete’s career. Now that has changed and we’ve moved on, and now with golf in the Olympics, it’s reaching an audience we may not have reached before. The likes of China, because the Olympics means so much to a nation like China, we’re going to have more people playing the game. I understand where it’s coming from, but my old school head feels it should have been the pinnacle for amateur golf instead. But if it does reach out and get more people interested in the game and playing, then that can only be a good thing.