Wrenching Time for Clarke as Ryder Cup Nears

By Associated PressSeptember 18, 2006, 4:00 pm
36th Ryder Cup MatchesSTRAFFAN, Ireland -- The shiny gold trophy sat on the table, and Ian Woosnam wasn't sure whether to take it with him.
 
Standing to leave his news conference Monday at The K Club, the European captain clutched it in his right hand and was headed out the door when he walked past Darren Clarke and instinctively handed him the Ryder Cup.
 
For all the emotions swirling around Clarke in the five weeks since his wife died, it was a reminder why he is here.
 
'A lot of people understand the position I'm in,' Clarke said. 'I've had a very emotional time of late. But as soon as the bell goes, I'm there to play golf, and I'm going to try to play as best I can. And hopefully, my best will be enough to earn some points for the team.'
 
Clarke contributed 3 1/2 points to Europe's landslide victory last time in the Ryder Cup, a festive occasion.
 
Two weeks after returning home from Oakland Hills, however, he learned that breast cancer had returned to his wife, Heather, and quickly spread through her body. She urged him to keep playing, even as her condition worsened.
 
A year ago at the BMW Championship at Wentworth, players and their wives were in tears to hear that Heather had suffered another setback and wasn't expected to live more than a week. Clarke always called her a fighter, and that much was clear.
 
She rallied time and again, strong enough to join him in the Bahamas the week before the Masters. But after Clarke opened with a 68 in the Houston Open a few weeks later, he withdrew to fly home to London when she took another turn for the worse.
 
Finally, he called it quits after missing the cut at the British Open, wanting to spend as much time as he could with his family.
 
'We went on a family holiday,' he said. 'We went to Greece for a day, and didn't like that; ended up in Portugal for a little bit. And after that, a bit of a rush to get back home on an air ambulance, just had a bit of a nightmare. But we got back home, and things went downhill rather rapidly.'
 
She died Aug. 13, leaving behind her husband and two sons, 8-year-old Tyrone and 5-year-old Conor.
 
Clarke would come home from the hospital in her last few weeks and hit balls, mostly to take his mind off a helpless situation. He returned to practice after the funeral because he wanted to be ready if he felt he should play in the Ryder Cup.
 
Woosnam offered him a captain's pick and Clarke accepted, for no other reason than Heather would have wanted him to play.
 
'I have my moments,' he said. 'But overall, I'm very comfortable with what I'm doing. I did think long and hard about whether I should be here this week, and I came to the conclusion that I would help the team if I was here. So that's why I'm here. I want to play. I want to compete. And I want to help my teammates.'
 
And while he has continued to work hard on his game, his routine has changed.
 
Clarke takes his oldest son to school in the morning before going to the golf course. He comes home to eat lunch with Conor and returns to practice until it's time to pick up Tyrone in the afternoon.
 
If there is any good that has come out of this, he has grown closer to his boys.
 
'I've had to look after them a bit more than what I normally have done,' Clarke said. 'Heather suffered for four years, basically, and it was very difficult to watch that. But since she's passed away, I'm happy with my relationship with my kids.'
 
He has thought about bringing them to opening ceremonies on Thursday -- a time when players make a grand entrance with their wives at their sides -- but isn't sure he can take them away from school. And they won't be around when the matches start at what is expected to be the biggest sports event in Ireland.
 
'They're not quite tall enough to see over everybody,' he said.
 
The unknown is how his game can stack up to the pressure of the Ryder Cup, and how his emotions handle three days of the biggest frenzy in golf. The loudest cheer all week might be when Clarke's name is announced on the first tee.
 
'It will be fantastic for him to play,' said Tiger Woods, one of Clarke's closest friends on the U.S. tour whose father died in May after a long battle with cancer. 'It will be fantastic for him to have teammates around him. I still think it's going to be hard because every player has his wife there. It's going to be hard in that environment at times. He knows that. We've talked about that. You have to deal with it one day, and it might as well be now.'
 
Clarke returned last week at the Madrid Masters, where he opened with a 68 and finished 15 shots behind. He was disappointed but has high expectations this week.
 
'I wasn't going out there just to try and play and shoot a decent number,' he said. 'I've worked very hard to get myself back onto that first tee. I was there to play.'
 
Even so, the 38-year-old from Northern Ireland cannot escape questions about the state of his game, much less his head.
 
'To come to the Ryder Cup in Ireland will be emotional enough for Irish players, but to have this on top of it ...,' Nick Faldo said last week. 'All these things will lift him, and I'm sure the bottom line is Heather would have wished that if anything happened to her, she would want him to play for the Ryder Cup. It will be gut-wrenching at times, but he will be strong and want to be part of it.'
 
Clarke is among the most popular players on both teams, mixing as easily with Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk as he does with Lee Westwood and Paul McGinley. A British golf writer once described him as someone who knew the inside of a Ferrari, the outside of a cigar and the bottom of a glass of Guinness.
 
Win or lose, U.S. captain Tom Lehman expects him to be a central figure in these matches.
 
'I think he's going to make the European team stronger,' Lehman said. 'I think he's going to make the Ryder Cup better. And I think it would not be nearly as good a Ryder Cup without him.'
 
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