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Subscribe to RSS feed for News Heather Clarke will always be in the Europeans' hearts, says Thomas Bjorn. (Photo: Getty Images)
Heather Clarke will always be in the Europeans' hearts, says Thomas Bjorn. (Photo: Getty Images)

Death of Clarke's wife has tight-knit Europeans reeling

As if the long streak of European futility in the PGA Championship isn't weighing on them enough, many of the European players at Medinah are struggling to focus on their preparations as they mourn the death of Heather Clarke.

MEDINAH, Ill. (AP) -- The PGA Championship is never an easy time for the Europeans.

Someone is always bringing up that oh-fer streak, a mark of major futility now at 75 years and counting. An Aussie, a couple of South Africans and someone from just about every corner in the United States have won since a European-born player last hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy.

This week, though, the pain the Europeans are feeling goes far deeper than wounded pride. Darren Clarke's wife, Heather, died Sunday after a long battle with breast cancer, and her death has left the close-knit European contingent here reeling. The mention of her name is enough to bring a shadow to players' faces, and Padraig Harrington plans to donate this week's earnings to charity in Heather Clarke's honor.

"It's a hard loss for everybody that knew Heather, and it's especially hard luck for him and his sons," Denmark's Thomas Bjorn said Tuesday. "She's right at the forefront of our minds, and she'll always be in our hearts and our thoughts."

Clarke is one of the most popular Europeans, a burly Northern Ireland native whose personality is even more colorful than his wardrobe. When he announced he'd be arriving late for the Masters -- where he paired a magenta shirt with pink pants one day -- he said he'd prepare for the newly lengthened Augusta National by bone fishing and having "a few beers."

If players liked Clarke, they liked his wife just as much.

"You can see why Darren had so much love for Heather," Tiger Woods said. "She's a very strong woman. It's a loss for everyone who ever got a chance to meet her and know her."

Heather Clarke, 39, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. It returned last year, and spread throughout her body. Even as her condition worsened, though, she pushed her husband to stay on the golf course.

Darren Clarke finished third at the Bay Hill Invitational, and shot a 68 at the Shell Houston Open before withdrawing after his wife took a turn for the worse. He was in the hunt at the British Open after opening with a 3-under 69, but followed with an 82 and missed the cut for the first time since 1998.

He then announced he was taking a break to be with his wife and their two sons, 8-year-old Tyrone and 5-year-old Conor.

"No one can truly understand what he's gone through unless you've actually experienced it yourself," said Woods, whose father, Earl, died of cancer earlier this year.

"I've talked to him a couple times about this, and it's not easy for him to come out here and play," Woods added. "But Heather really wanted him to come out here and play and get away from all the distractions at home and go play and go be himself. Heather never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her."

Heather Clarke's prognosis was so poor many of her friends feared she wouldn't make it through 2005. Still, her death on the eve of the last major of 2006 came as a shock.

Clarke had already withdrawn from the tournament. Paul McGinley, one of Clarke's closest friends, pulled out Monday to be with him and his family. Harrington and Bjorn said they considered not coming, too, but Clarke talked them out of it.

"Darren made it quite clear that the players should go and play," Harrington said. "It's what Heather would have wanted. That's made our decision a lot easier to be here."

But the Clarkes are still very much on their minds. Harrington announced Tuesday that any money he wins this week will go to a charity of Darren Clarke's choosing -- even if Harrington wins the tournament and its prize of about $1.2 million.

"I'd be delighted to hand whatever over this week," Harrington said. "Obviously, not being able to attend the funeral -- when you go to funerals, you can't be much help anyway, but this is at least a practical way of helping."

If Harrington is to win the tournament's biggest prize, he'll have to overcome a lot of history.

No European-born player has won the PGA Championship since Tommy Armour, a Scotsman, did it in 1930, when the tournament was still decided with match play. And only two other European-born players -- Scotland's Jock Hutchinson and Jim Barnes of England -- have won it since it began in 1916.

"We've certainly got enough quality to challenge for the major championships," Bjorn said. "We keep saying if one gets over the line, I think it'll help a lot of others. That's what we've got to believe in."

This week, though, history is the last thing on the minds of the Europeans. One dear friend is gone, and another is grieving an ocean away.

"Even though we've got a big tournament this week, it's not a situation that I'm trying to ... let it be," Harrington said. "I'm not going to necessarily try and block it out. I'm not going to dwell on it, either. I'm just going to see how it goes.

"Obviously the situation as it's happened, it's bigger than golf," he added. "It's just a question of carrying on and see how it goes."

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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