By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke always looks like he’s having a good time on the golf course -- and everyone knows he has a great time off it.
If at all possible, this particular week at Atlanta Athletic Club might just be a little more enjoyable than all the others before it, as the stocky Ulsterman who turns 43 on Sunday makes his first start in a major championship since becoming a major champion.
Clarke -- a 22-time winner worldwide -- was far from a favorite when he triumphed in the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s in the cold, wind and rain last month. Sure, he won the Iberdrola Open in Mallorca, Spain, back in May, but that was his first win since the summer of 2008.
The key at the Open were some things Clarke says have been difficult for him to grasp all these years: patience and never giving up.
“That's what [the win] taught me,” he said. “I was very patient the whole week, of which I have not been that often in the past. But you never know what the game is going to give you. You never know what's around the corner. Just never give up; keep going, keep going, keep going. That's what it taught me.”
Time will tell whether that pays off for Clarke this week. Since the Open win, he’s teed it up in the Irish Open, where he missed the cut, and the no-cut WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, which resulted in a 68th-place showing in a 76-man field.
The struggles have continued, at least through nine holes of practice, at Atlanta Athletic Club. If history is any indication of what’s to come for Clarke, though, he should be encouraged by what’s to come.
“I played the same nine holes on Tuesday morning this morning as I did at St. George's on Tuesday morning, i.e., poorly,” Clarke quipped. “So it's pretty similar, so I shall be spending quite a bit of time on the range trying to figure it out a little bit.”
Expectation-wise, Clarke said he likes to keep things at an even keel.
“If I can play my best, my best is good enough to contend and to win,” he said.
“I play well sometimes and I play poorly sometimes,” Clarke admitted. “I've always been the same and I don't think anything will change. I will certainly be doing my best and try to play well, but in terms of feeling any extra pressure, no, I'll just go and play and see how I get on.”
Royal St. George’s and Atlanta Athletic Club couldn’t be more different. There won’t be any sweaters here. And while there may be some wind, the players will feel like they’ve spent the day walking in front of a hairdryer.
“I'm a finely tuned athlete, so it should not affect me that much,” Clarke joked about the heat, which is forecasted to soar well into the 90s. “It's going to be hot. It's going to be hot for everybody. Last week in Akron it was hot as well, but it's going to be even hotter here. You've just got to do your best, and, you know, for me I've got to drink an awful lot of fluids and try and keep focused on what I'm doing. But the heat is going to be tough for everybody this week.”
Loads of well-wishes have come Clarke’s way since he raised the Claret Jug and, as a result, there have been more demands on his time.
“I would like to think it hasn't changed me at all,” he said. “I hope it won't and I don't think it will. All I will say is that I'm still a little bit tired. I've had no time off since the Open, so I'll be looking forward to a couple of weeks off after this week. You know, I haven't played that well since, mainly due to the fact that I have not had any time off. It's great to be here competing in all of the tournaments I want to play in, but it will be nice to have a little bit of a rest the next couple of weeks.”
So what happens should Clarke pull off the unlikely and hoists the Wanamaker Trophy on his 43rd birthday?
“It would obviously be very special,” he said. “I may go AWOL for a few days again like did I the last time. But it would be very special, yes.”