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PGA Grand Slam of Golf: Darren Clarke

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PGA GRAND SLAM OF GOLF APPEARANCES: 2011
MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIP WINS: 2011 Open Championship
WORLDWIDE VICTORIES: 21
BIRTHDATE: August 14, 1968
BIRTHPLACE: Dungannon, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland
RESIDENCE: Portrush, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
FAMILY: Engaged to Alison Campbell; Sons: Tyrone and Conor
SPECIAL INTERESTS: Cars, sports
TURNED PROFESSIONAL: 1990

By Lewine Mair, Special to PGA.com

SANDWICH, England -- There was a twinkle in Darren Clarke's eye when he was advised that he had qualified for the PGA's Grand Slam of Golf in Bermuda.  

"Now I like the sound of that," said the 42-year-old Clarke, who, as one would imagine, reveled in the opportunities afforded by his success at the 140th Open Championship.  

The Irish golfer's win at Royal St. George's came in his 20th attempt and only four months after he had amassed an 81 in a European Tour event in Morocco -- a score that left him thinking that his golfing days were done, that perhaps it was time to retire. Chubby Chandler, the owner of the International Sports Management company that has represented Clarke for 21 years, listened to the downcast words and came up with an alternative solution.  

"Take a break," he advised.  

Clarke took three weeks off and, on his return, won in Mallorca. It may not have been from the strongest of fields, but it was a win just the same. At the start of his Open week, Clarke fell into step with Bob Rotella, the mind man with whom he used to work regularly in the days when he was competing in the U.S. He told Rotella how badly he had putted in his closing 75 at the Scottish Open the previous Sunday and Rotella knew, in a trice, where Clarke was going wrong.  

"You need to go unconscious and forget technique," he said.  

He recommended that Clarke should look at where he wanted the ball to go -- and hit it as he would have done when he was enjoying a childhood round at Dungannon. The latter is the Northern Ireland club where his father, Godfrey, used to be the greenkeeper.

To a man, the fans held their breath when Clarke had a 12-footer to save par on the first hole of his final round at Royal St. George's. He hit the putt a tad hard, but it went in just the same. It was perhaps because the ball could have bolted 2 or 3 feet past that he looked more shocked than anything else. Either that or because it had occurred to him, as it had to many others, that he had just made what was perhaps the most important putt of his golfing life.

Seventeen holes later, Clarke finished an even-par 70 and a 5-under total that was three strokes better than Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson. Predictably, it was Chandler who captured what Clarke's Open win meant to the player better than anyone else.

"No golfer," he said as his man was putting out on the home green, "wants to be labelled an underachiever and today Darren lost that tag."

The victory was one more thing to come right in a life that went so badly awry shortly after Clarke had won the second of his WGC titles and was enjoying a spell, across 2000 to 2002, when he spent 43 assorted weeks in the world's top 10. In December 2001, his endlessly supportive wife, Heather, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Initially, her treatment went well, but, as Heather's health faded, so Clarke's golf did the same. He could play two rounds "on auto-pilot" before his attention turned to home and family.

Heather, then 39, died in August 2006. A grief-stricken Clarke put his emotions on hold to play in the following month's Ryder Cup, but once the match was out of the way, the enormity of what had happened hit him like the proverbial ton of bricks.

"Everything felt horrible, but you have to keep going..."

He concentrated his efforts on bringing up his two sons, Tyrone, now 13, and Conor, 10, and in 2009, the three of them left London to return to Northern Ireland. The idea was that the boys would be among friends and family when their father was at tournaments.

In doing what was best for them, this old sea-dog of the links inadvertently helped himself.

He got back in the way of practicing in all kinds of weather at Portrush and was able to rediscover those quailhigh shots that served him so well at Royal St. George's. At the same time, he spent countless hours enjoying chipping and putting contests with his children. There was a further unexpected bonus to the move.

Toward the end of 2009, Graeme McDowell served as a match-maker and gave Clarke the number of one Alison Campbell, a friend of a friend and a former Miss Northern Ireland who owned a modeling agency in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Clarke plucked up the courage to send a text, asking her out to dinner, and in December 2010, precisely a year after they met, the pair announced their engagement.

It was in Abu Dhabi, at the start of the 2011 season, that Clarke pre-empted a question as to how Campbell handled him when he was in one of those well-documented huffs, which can, at times, take over from the humor.

"Listen," laughed Clarke, "Alison owns and runs one of the most successful model agencies in Belfast. She's worldly-wise and well able to cope with me, even my strops. When necessary, she ignores me...

"At the same time, she gets on brilliantly with Tyrone and Conor. The boys will forever miss and remember their mum, but they are happy."

Clarke truly did not believe he would win the Open until he was walking onto the 72nd green, at which point he had flashbacks to the past interwoven with thoughts of the present.

"I know that there was someone watching from above," he said, "She would have been saying, 'I told you so.'"

As for Campbell, she was engagingly sensitive in Clarke's moment of victory. She hung back, only stepping forward when Clarke sought her out after embracing his parents. He paid tribute to all three in his victory speech, while his first words as he held the Claret Jug aloft were, "This is for my boys."

During the course of his press conference afterward, he said he would be writing himself some new goals in that the ones he had scribbled down at the start of the season were now defunct.

"I don't want to sit back," he said. "What today's shown me is that I can still compete with the best in the world."

He does not expect to come up with the goods every week for, though he has as many as 22 round-the-world victories under his belt, he nowadays sees himself as a bit like one of those rain-forest flowers that blossom at rare and unpredictable intervals.

"It's only every so often that I get in the right mood and play the golf I am capable of playing," he explained.

The PGA Grand Slam of Golf is precisely the kind of event to detonate that "right mood."

Lewine Mair was the golf correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in Londay for 12 years before becoming Senior European Correspondent for Global Golf Post. She serves on the board of the Duke of York's Golf Foundation and the On-Course Foundation for injured servicemen taking up golf.

This story appears courtesy of the 2011 PGA Grand Slam of Golf Official Journal.