Players tip caps to helpful fathers at Grand Slam

Rory McIlroy congratulates his father Gerry after holing a putt on the seventh green during the first round of The Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at the Kingsbarns Golf Links.

SOUTHAMPTON, Bermuda – When it was over by early Wednesday afternoon and the 36 holes had not gone well, Darren Clarke could count on that one person who had been there for him nearly every day of his 43-plus years.

His father, Godfrey.

Reaching out to his son’s agent and confidant, Andrew “Chubby” Chandler, Godfrey Clarke handed off a cold bottle of Heineken. Chandler passed it to Darren Clarke, who signed his scorecard, but not before turning toward Godfrey to offer a smile.

If the 29th Grand Slam of Golf at Port Royal Golf Course had not produced the best of golf experiences for Clarke (shooting 77-74, he finished last in the four-man field, 13 strokes behind the winner, Keegan Bradley, with Charl Schwartzel second and Rory McIlroy third), it had authored a wonderful trip to a slice of paradise for a family who has provided him so much.

“My mom and dad, my fiance, a couple of friends who supported me through all my years growing up. It’s nice just to give them a little bit back,” Clarke said.

He certainly was not alone, because PGA of America officials – organizers of this low-key, feel-good, festive tournament – said for the first time that they could remember, all four players had brought their parents. It was especially noteworthy for the fathers, because each of the 2011 major winners – Schwartzel, Masters; McIlroy, U.S. Open; Clarke, Open Championship; Bradley, PGA Championship – will tell you that they were introduced to the game and nurtured for success by these men.

That George Schwartzel, Gerry McIlroy, Godfrey Clarke and Mark Bradley roamed this majestic oceanfront golf course for two days and enjoyed the competition while brushing aside any credit is beside the point. Gerry McIlroy merely sees what he did as a labor of love.

“If I hadn’t have done what I did – working the three jobs and 100 hours a week and all that – I would have looked back years later with regret,” he said.

If there was a flavorful ingredient to the two-day tournament and the four or five days on this fabulous getaway, it was seeing Godfrey Clarke and Gerry McIlroy walking the fairways and sharing evening festivities. They are simple men from Northern Ireland, a place that for many years offered some of life’s hardest lessons, and what brought their families and sons together was golf, our greatest game.

Just a youngster with enormous talent, Rory McIlroy appeared on television many years ago and dribbled a golf ball off a wedge. Cute stuff made even cuter when he told the TV host that his hero was “Darren Clarke.”

It is a part of folklore how McIlroy went through Clarke’s foundation, which is when Godfrey and Gerry became friends, and how Rory followed his hero into professional golf, and how in the summer of 2011 the two of them joined to script an incredible bookend of golf stories with Open triumphs on each side of the Atlantic.

Ah, but Clarke being the gregarious soul that he is, enlightened the Grand Slam of Golf audience Tuesday evening by revealing how his protege from Northern Ireland had pushed some buttons to get his fires burning. During a practice round at the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s, Clarke was going along with McIlroy when they caught up to Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, those South African soulmates. Admittedly edgy over his sloppy play, Clarke meandered away from the trio of players at one point, only to look back and see McIlroy, who had just won the U.S. Open a month earlier, standing with Schwartzel, the Masters winner, and Oosthuizen, your 2010 Open Champion.

“Rory, who I’ve looked after since he was this high,” Clarke said, holding his hand about 2 feet off the ground, “says, ‘Where’s your major?’ Well, a few days later, I showed him my major.”

Indeed, that stirring triumph at Royal St. George’s not only validated Clarke’s 22 years as a pro, but earned him a trip to the Grand Slam of Golf. There was no doubt Godfrey was coming, just as he often goes on other golf journeys, such as the King Hassan Trophy pro-am in Morocco, to be with his son.

“He’ll tell me, ‘I’d rather have you play like crap than have an amateur partner play like crap,’ ” Godfrey said, laughing.

Supportive that they were in their sons’ golf careers, neither Godfrey nor Gerry possesses a background in the game beyond the passion to play. It’s a different story with George Schwartzel, who tried his hand as a professional golfer in South Africa, and Mark Bradley, a longtime PGA club professional who now works in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Each of them got his boy into golf, nurtured during the formative years, and can offer a sounding board with some knowledge of what it takes to play. In fact, Schwartzel to this day will tell people his father is his coach, a notion that George rejects (“He gives me too much credit,” he said), while Mark Bradley is thrilled that Keegan has entrusted his game to Jim McLean.

But having watched their sons grow into world-class champions and major winners, the fathers embraced the trip to Bermuda as a reward for years of hard, yet satisfying work. Not that it didn’t come with some moments of angst, for while Mark Bradley anxiously walked along to watch his son hold on to a one-stroke triumph, George Schwartzel was tough to find.

“I’m too nervous to watch,” said the farmer from South Africa. “I love to watch golf, to watch other golfers, but I don’t want him to see me getting nervous.”

So quietly, but proudly, George Schwartzel watched from vantage points that were far away from the crowds. Encouraged by Charl to come to a tournament during this end-of-the-season rush, George Schwartzel pondered a possible Presidents Cup in Australia or maybe the World Cup in China, but settled on this Grand Slam of Golf event in Bermuda.

He was thrilled that he had, even if he had to once again fight the nerves that come with being in attendance when Charl is in the field. His son didn’t help the nerves, either, because after having opened with a 74 to sit seven strokes off of the lead, Charl Schwartzel missed a few more birdie chances in Wednesday’s final round.

“He’s having trouble with the putter,” George Schwartzel said, and then he went on to explain how his son was a fighter “and he won’t go to the belly putter; he’ll spend time and figure out what’s wrong.”

A short time later, Schwartzel had rolled in his fourth straight birdie, and when he holed out a bunker shot at the ninth to make it five straight birdies, a smile appeared on the father’s face.

“See, how quickly things can change?”

From seven back, Schwartzel had pulled even with Bradley and what began as a casual, easy money-grab of a tournament turned into a back-nine thriller. While McIlroy, who began the day tied for the lead with Bradley at 4 under, failed to make a birdie and shot 4 over 75 to fade, Bradley and Schwartzel went the other way.

But it turned in favor of the only American in the field when Bradley birdied the 10th to go back in front. Schwartzel (65–139) erased a bogey at the 13th with a birdie at the 15th, but couldn’t quite catch Bradley, who shot 71 to finish at 4-under 138 and earn the $600,000 first prize.

Not bad for two days of work, but that’s not why Mark Bradley was wearing a smile brighter than than brilliant blue ocean.

No, he was more happy for the years of hard work that had paid off in a son to be proud of. The smile matched those that belonged to Godfrey, George and Gerry.

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