SANDWICH, England – Darren Clarke is a large man, part husky, part plump. He has been known to live large, as well. Smoke a cigar, sip some wine, have a laugh, enjoy fine dining, repeat. On that rosy face, you can usually find he’s smiling with eyes and teeth.
It follows that his relationship with the good life has led to a weight fluctuation over the years. He has gone from heavy to working-out lean to heavy again over the past decade. Though Clarke says there has been no correlation between a scale reading and performance, his manager, Chubby Chandler, thinks otherwise.
“Chubby has always said that I play better fat, so I’ve obviously been adhering to that theory,” Clarke said, smiling at his self-deprecation.
Chandler also says Clarke is considering going on a Weight Watchers program right after this week’s British Open. He has peppered his client about it all week.
“And after having seen myself on television and the highlights, I think he might have a point,” Clarke said.
Or perhaps not have a point.
The way Clarke is playing at the Open at Royal St. George’s, he might not want to lose an ounce. This is fat and happy: Clarke opened with a pair of 68s for a 4-under-par total and sits high upon the leaderboard, tied for the lead late in the second round.
The affable Ulsterman is a compelling story for, at 42, he is in the midst of rebuilding not only his game, but his life. The five-time Ryder Cup player finished in the top 10 in PGA European Tour earnings for nine consecutive seasons from 1993 to 2004, but he hasn’t done so since. He has been no better than 30th in four of the past five years. He has dropped to 111th in the world.
In short, he has been recovering from the loss of his wife, Heather, to cancer in 2006. Just weeks after the death, an emotional Clarke went 3-0 as an inspirational leader in Europe’s Ryder Cup rout of the United States at the K Club in Ireland.
“Nothing could be more difficult than that particular week,” he said here.
For certain, one senses transformation now. He moved back to his native Portrush for family reasons last summer after about 13 years in London. He got engaged late last year to Belfast modeling agency owner Alison Campbell, a former Miss Northern Ireland whom he met on a blind date set up by countryman Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion.
Two months ago, Clarke claimed his 13th European Tour title at the Iberdrola Open in Spain, his first victory in three years and only third since 2003. And now he’s contending at an Open that he says he believes he can win.
“It’s a lot easier to player better whenever family life and stuff at home are much better, much more stable again,” Clarke said after a roller-coaster 68 that included one eagle, five birdies, three bogeys and one double bogey.
Clarke lives near his parents and sister. His school-age children are happy there. Life is comfortable and easier on a single father. “He feels at home, where he’s supposed to be,” said Louis Martin, a manager in Chandler’s agency.
Then there’s the Campbell effect.
“She’s a great girl who has been instrumental in getting my life back on track,” Clarke said.
As for his golf game, it’s riding high at the moment thanks largely to a session Wednesday with his longtime sports psychologist, Bob Rotella. Though Clarke tied for second in the 1997 Open and tied for third in ’01, he came here with no notion of winning because his putting was suspect, at best. Then Rotella helped him get his head straight. Reiteration of past wisdom translated to a freed-up putting stroke. Suddenly he found “feel and pace” on the greens.
“His thought process is very simple,” Clarke said, “and that seems to suit me very well.”
The move to Portrush also has served him well this week. Clarke has been playing links golf in bad weather for much of the past year.
“That’s what I’ve been doing all winter at home,” he said. “Hopefully it will stand me in good stead.”
You might say homeland momentum is on his side, as well. In the past four years, golfers from the Emerald Isle have won five major championships after having claimed none since Fred Daly won the 1947 Open at Royal Liverpool. Padraig Harrington bagged three in 2007-08. And in a mindboggling development, the little country of Northern Ireland (population of about 1.8 million) has produced the past two U.S. Open champions in McDowell and Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy was aided on his way up by Clarke’s junior golf foundation. McDowell also has received some pearls of wisdom from his elder Ulsterman.
“I’ve been telling them all the stuff not to do – all the stuff I’ve done,” Clarke deadpanned.
Now the question is this: Might the mentor be next to achieve major success? McDowell, for one, says, Why not?
“He’s a great links player,” the 2010 Player of the Year said, “and he’s the type of player who can still win golf tournaments, as he showed in Mallorca.”
On top of that, you might say Clarke appears loose. When he bent over to stretch on the first tee Thursday, someone in the gallery whistled. Clarke responded with, “I hope that was a lady.”
It wasn’t. And the scene repeated Friday.
“He whistled again, same guy,” Clarke said. “I’m doing something all wrong.”
He wasn’t alone. Miguel Angel Jimenez got the same treatment Friday. Only “The Mechanic,” another fortysomething European with a paunch, had a cigar in his mouth while bending over and stretching.
Clarke smiled at the vision.
“He’s an athlete same as myself, obviously,” he said.