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Time and Tears for Europes Rock

36th Ryder Cup MatchesSTRAFFAN, Ireland -- He hugged everyone, his playing partner, captain, caddie, his opponents and their caddies, too, even one of their wives.
That's because Darren Clarke will never again hold the one person he wanted to hug most. Almost six weeks after Heather Clarke succumbed to cancer, her husband of 10 years stood on the first tee Friday morning at the Ryder Cup and stared through misting eyes down the barrel of the toughest tee shot he ever faced.
Darren Clarke
Darren Clarke receives a warm welcome from the fans on the first tee at the K Club.
He striped it.
'I don't know how I managed to do that. Sort of tee it up and get it somewhere down there, and it went flush, flush, flush and made a 3.
'It was,' Clarke added a moment later, 'good.'
It was better than that actually, a birdie that set the tone for a match in which Clarke and trusty sidekick Lee Westwood outlasted the American duo of Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco 1-up. Soon after it was official, and not long after Clarke buried his head on a few shoulders and was embraced by Amy Mickelson, someone asked whether the tears welling in his eyes at the end were a sign of joy or relief.
'Emotions, hopefully, you won't ever have to feel,' Clarke replied. 'That's basically what they were.'
Much has been made about how Europeans dominate the Ryder Cup -- winning four of the last five and seven of the last 10 -- because they play like a team instead of a collection of talented individuals. That was apparent even in Thursday's opening ceremonies, when the Americans again were introduced, beginning with Tiger Woods, according to their world rankings and the Europeans, as always, in alphabetical order.
Much has been made, too, about how Clarke's recent loss would bind an already close-knit bunch even tighter. There was plenty to support that theory, too.
In a classy gesture, he was hugged by Mickelson and DiMarco on the first tee and then was wrapped up in an ovation so long, loud and warm that you half-expected Clarke to float off down the fairway behind his golf ball. Every grandstand after that treated him to an encore, and along almost every fairway, cheers broke out ahead of Clarke to replace those that died out behind.
'I was very, very wary of trying not to make it too loud,' he said, 'in case that would be perceived as using the crowd in my favor. That's not what I wanted at all. I was very grateful for the support. I think they showed me that they care.'
A quieter but just as powerful dynamic is at work behind the scenes. Clarke's teammates, mindful of how often he's delivered in past Ryder Cups, have tried their level best to provide support without having it feel like pity. Clark made that delicate task easy.
'He's sort of the rock on our team,' Paul Casey said. 'It's been very emotional, but we're all there for him, and I think he's having a cracking time so far.'
Clarke was hardly the only European feeling that way after his side rang up a 5-3 lead on opening day, in part because he and Jose Maria Olazabal, another decorated veteran, offered to sit out the second session so captain Ian Woosnam could get every one of his dozen players on the course. And each, in turn, contributed at least half a point.
That was in sharp contrast to the U.S. side, where Scott Verplank and rookie Vaughn Taylor never got into the game, and another rookie, Brett Wetterich, lost his morning match and didn't get the chance to redeem himself in the afternoon.
Westwood, on the other hand, had little problem going out in the alternate-shot session without Clarke, making Woosnam's mix-and-match philosophy work by combining with Colin Montgomerie to halve their match with Mickelson and DiMarco.
'I've never played with Monty before,' Westwood said, 'but Woosie asked him who he would like to play with and he said me, which was nice.'
By the same token, Westwood, the Englishman, made his name riding shotgun for Clarke, from Northern Ireland, and the two will be back together Saturday in a better-ball match against Woods and Jim Furyk. They've become such close pals while beating the likes of Woods, Mickelson and even U.S. captain Tom Lehman during the last three Ryder Cups that not only do their styles fit together seamlessly, they often finish each other's sentences.
During one post-match interview, Clarke was looking for the words to describe his reception on the first tee when Westwood interjected, 'I was nearly crying myself.' A moment later, Clarke said about the opening tee shot, 'That was always going to be a tough ...' and before he could finish, Westwood cut in grinning, 'and then hit it 340 yards right down the middle.'
Clarke was on his own in the interview room later, though, and he wanted to make a point of sharing the credit for his sparkling play on what had been a very difficult day. He praised Westwood to the skies, then Mickelson and DiMarco, his teammates, his opponents and 'everyone involved with the event.'
Clarke's two sons, Tyrone, who just turned 8, and Conor, who's 6, were still in school, but he had few doubts his older boy would figure out a way to see the replay.
'He knows how to work it,' Clark laughed, 'better than I do.'
Whether that win would help lift their spirits was a question Clarke left unanswered. But when the same question was put to him, Clarke didn't hesitate.
'The only thing that can do that,' he said, 'is time.'
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