Clarke contrast

By Rex HoggardJuly 15, 2011, 5:06 pm

SANDWICH, England – When Darren Clarke talks fondly of sports psychology staple Dr. Bob Rotella he refers to an “old friend,' a lifeline in a sea of competitive uncertainty. As the 42-year-old joked with fans on the first tee early Friday at Royal St. George’s it was easy to feel the same way about Clarke.

Before Graeme McDowell emerged from the Pebble Beach pack last June, before Rory McIlroy officially assumed the role of resident alpha male last month at Congressional, there was Clarke – as Northern Irish as Guinness and Shepherd’s Pie.

“It’s amazing. (Northern Ireland) has six tour players and there’s only about 15 people in the country,” Clarke’s manager Chubby Chandler said earlier this year.  “Darren led them. He was the guy who set the bar and came over here. G-Mac followed him. And Rory followed G-Mac.”

You remember Clarke, right? Six-foot-two, 200 pounds on a good day, 13-time European Tour winner and a Ryder Cup assassin with a ready smile framed perfectly by a face as red as the numbers he’s put up at St. George’s this week.

He didn’t put Northern Irish golf on the map, he just made it fun to watch. Much like he’s made the 140th playing of the Open Championship something much more than the sum of its parts.

Through two rounds and four seasons, or so it seems, Clarke is little more than a jovial face in the crowd here at the Reclamation Project Open. The race to the claret jug is nothing less than a struggle for redemption for the likes of Clarke and Thomas Bjorn.

Bjorn’s plummet began at St. George’s 16th hole nearly a decade ago when he walked into a cavernous pot bunker, needed three desperate swings to get out and watched someone named Ben Curtis win his Open. Clarke’s freefall didn’t have a defined beginning, but it has been just as difficult to climb out of.

As best anyone can tell Clarke’s nose-dive from world-beater to simply beaten began in 2006 when his wife, Heather, died of breast cancer. The widower with two children dropped to 43rd in European Tour earnings and completed his third year without a victory.

Drained by the loss, and maybe even the European team’s Ryder Cup victory at the K Club, his next season was even worse, missing the cut in more events than not (11 of 20) and falling to 138th in earnings.

The body was willing, but the mind, and eventually the putter, pushed back at every turn.

Clarke rebounded with two victories in 2008 and another earlier this year at the Iberdrola Open in Spain, but something wasn’t right, at least not until Wednesday when he reunited with his “old friend” Rotella.

“Dr. Bob, his thought process is very simple, and that seems to suit me very well,” said Clarke, whose bookend rounds of 68 at St. George’s have lifted him into a tie with Lucas Glover at 4 under.

On Friday Clarke was asked if he thought he could actually win the Open Championship, journalistically a lay-up question particularly considering his six top-25 finishes in the game’s oldest tilt. His wide-eyed answer was surprisingly short, “Absolutely.”

Maybe it’s Rotella, maybe it’s his fiancée, Alison Campbell – whom he met on a blind date that was set up by McDowell – maybe it’s his return home to Portrush after years of living in London. Whatever the tonic, Clarke, the forgotten European in the current crush of Continental dominance, has the look of a man who still belongs, even if the rest of us forgot.

And why wouldn’t he? He mentored McDowell as a young pro and McIlroy was a member of Clarke’s own junior program back in Northern Ireland. And now he’s watched quietly as two of the last four majors have been brought home to Ulster.

“It’s pretty massive odds,” McDowell said of the possibility of a third major champion from Northern Ireland in just over one year. “It is pretty amazing the way certain guys doing it can spur others on to do it.”

Ultimately, however, Clarke’s confidence may stem from the simple truth that more than just about anyone else in the Open field he possesses the unique skills to master a links course that promises to become harder if this weekend’s forecast holds.

Clarke said he made the move from England because he wanted his children to go to school in Northern Ireland, but the byproduct has been a steady diet of Royal Portrush’s predictably poor conditions. On Friday that was obvious when he referenced the unfavorable weekend forecast with a wry smile, “I quite look forward to (it).”

“I’ve been doing a lot of practicing in bad weather because that’s usually what we get at Portrush,” he smiled.

Whatever the reason for Clarke’s return to form the old swagger was unmistakable, a quiet confidence often masked by an engaging persona. On St. George’s 18th hole on Friday the man who lives for the pressure ofthe Ryder Cup was at his swashbuckling best, carving a 7-iron with the wind to 20 feet for a walk-off birdie.

When asked why he would attempt such a bold shot on Friday, Clarke grinned widely, “I’m either very brave or very stupid. I don’t know which one I am frequently.”

With that, the “old friend” was on his way and for a moment it almost seemed like he had never left.

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Furyk on Tiger-Phil pairing: 'Probably not too likely'

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 26, 2018, 10:40 am

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – So much for the possibility of a Tiger-Phil pairing.

A day after Mickelson said that both he and Woods would “welcome” the opportunity to team up 14 years after their disastrous Ryder Cup partnership, U.S. captain Jim Furyk all but squashed the idea Wednesday.

“I guess nothing’s out of the realm,” Furyk said during his news conference. “I think they both mentioned it would be a lot better pairing than it was in the past. I won’t ever say it wouldn’t happen, but it’s probably not too likely.”

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Woods and Mickelson have grown closer since they both were part of the Ryder Cup task force. In 2004, U.S. captain Hal Sutton made the unprecedented move of pairing the top two players in the world – at that time, rivals who were not particularly close – to disastrous effect, as they went 0-2 together en route to a blowout American loss.

Mickelson said he’d welcome another pairing with Woods, then added, “I do have an idea of what Captain Furyk is thinking, yeah.”

And apparently he’s thinking no.

Furyk made similar remarks earlier this year, when he said that putting Woods and Mickelson together again "wouldn't be a good idea as a captain."

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Reed match taught McIlroy the need to conserve energy

By Rex HoggardSeptember 26, 2018, 10:18 am

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – One of the most memorable Ryder Cup singles matches in recent history was also one of the most exhausting.

Rory McIlroy was asked on Wednesday at Le Golf National about his singles bout with Patrick Reed two years ago at Hazeltine National, when the duo combined for eight birdies and an eagle through eight frenzied holes.

“I could play it for nine holes, and then it suddenly hit me,” said McIlroy, who was 5 under through eight holes but played his final 10 holes in 2 over par. “The level sort of declined after that and sort of reached its crescendo on the eighth green, and the last 10 holes wasn't quite as good.”

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In retrospect McIlroy said the match, which he lost, 1 down, was educational and he realized that maintaining that level of emotion over 18 holes isn’t realistic.

“It looked tiring to have to play golf like that for three days,” he said. “I learnt a lot from that and learnt that it's good to get excited and it's good to have that, but at the same time, if I need and have to be called upon to play a late match on Sunday or whatever it is, I want to have all my energy in reserve so that I can give everything for 18 holes because I did hit a wall that back nine on Sunday, and it cost me.”

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U.S. team gives Tiger 'cold shoulder' after Tour Championship win

By Rex HoggardSeptember 26, 2018, 10:08 am

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Tiger Woods was one of the final members of Team USA to make it to the team room late Sunday in Atlanta after his travel plans were delayed by his victory at the Tour Championship.

As the team waited, captain Jim Furyk concocted a plan for Woods.

“I ran into Jim Furyk and he said, ‘We were thinking about giving Tiger the cold shoulder like they do in baseball when the guy hits his first home run.’ He asked, ‘Do you think Tiger will be OK with that?’” Woods’ caddie Joe LaCava told Ryder Cup Radio on Sirius/XM. “I was like, ‘Of course he would. He’s got a sense of humor.’”

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The U.S. team had plenty to cheer on Sunday with vice captain Steve Stricker also winning on the PGA Tour Champions. But it was Woods’ reception following his 80th PGA Tour victory and his first in five years that provided the best reaction.

“Tiger shows up about a half-hour later and is looking for some high-fives from everybody and they wouldn’t give him the time of day. They weren’t even looking at him, they all have their backs to him,” LaCava said. “He’s looking at me like what’s going on? He’s not a guy who is looking for fanfare, but these are his boys. He’s looking for 11 guys to run up and give him a good hug.”

LaCava said the team ignored Woods for about two minutes before breaking the silence with cheers and congratulations.

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How FedExCup has changed Ryder Cup prep

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 26, 2018, 8:56 am

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – The improved play of the U.S. Ryder Cup team might be attributed to more than just youthful exuberance or camaraderie.

Phil Mickelson said the PGA Tour schedule is also a factor.

Mickelson argued this week that the advent of the FedExCup Playoffs, in 2007, has contributed to the Americans’ better results in the biennial matches. Save for the disastrous blowout in 2014 at Gleneagles, the Americans have either won or been locked in a tight match with the Europeans.

“I think the FedExCup is a big asset for us,” Mickelson said. “In the past, we’ve had six weeks off in between our last competition and the Ryder Cup. This year, although we might be tired, we might have had a long stretch, our games are much sharper because of our consistent play week-in and week-out heading into this event.”

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When presented with Mickelson’s theory, Justin Rose, the new FedExCup champion, countered by saying that the Europeans are the fresher team this week – and that could be more important during such a stressful event.

Seventeen of the 24 players here were in East Lake for the Tour Championship, meaning they not only played the minimum number of events for PGA Tour membership, but also played in at least three of the four playoff events.

Some of the European players, however, have remained loyal to their home tour and taken more time off. Henrik Stenson missed a few events to rest his ailing elbow. Sergio Garcia didn’t play for four weeks. And even Rose has adjusted his schedule during the latter part of the season, to make sure that he was as fresh as possible for the Ryder Cup. That meant skipping the pro-am in Boston and flying in on Thursday night, on the eve of the tournament, and reducing his number of practice rounds.

“It’s interesting,” Rose said. “They might feel like they are playing their way in and our guys are going to have a bit of gas in the tank. We’ll have to evaluate it on Sunday, but I’m hoping our strategy is going to be the one that pays off in the long run.”