Seven weeks before the 2016 Ryder Cup, European captain Darren Clarke celebrated his 48th birthday at the swank Abaco Club on Winding Bay in the Bahamas. The remote enclave has become a second home of sorts for the Northern Ireland native since he first visited in 2004, a place where he can enjoy a few of his favorite things: golf, the beach, and chasing tarpon. “There’s no other place like this in the world,” Clarke said.
Still, the magnitude of the job that awaited him at Hazeltine National at the end of September was never far from his mind. At a beach bar overlooking the turquoise waters of Winding Bay, Clarke spoke about the pressure of being a captain’s pick, why Tiger and Phil have struggled in the biennial event, and why Hazeltine should give fans “plenty to shout about.”
You first played in a Ryder Cup in 1997 at Valderrama in Spain. You sat out the first day and then teamed up on Day 2 with Colin Montgomerie against Fred Couples and this year’s U.S. captain Davis Love III. What most stands out from that match?
We just had a great match with Davis and Freddie. They ended up as two really good friends of mine and I used to play practice rounds with them weekly on the PGA Tour. We were playing the 18th hole that round and the match was all square. I managed to hit it up the middle of fairway and Monty was just left in the trees but had a shot. Monty wanted me to go first. I was with Billy Foster my caddie, and Seve (Ballesteros, the European captain) came over and he was in my bag seeing what I was going to hit. Billy turned around and used some very abusive language and told him where to go. It was probably as nervous as I’d ever been at that stage. I hit a 6-iron right down the flag 15 feet short. Monty hit it on the green to 40 feet. Davis had missed the green just left, chipped up and left it short. We had two putts from either of us to win the match. There’s me thinking I have a 15-footer straight up the hill, right to left, just knock it up there, point for us. I said to Monty, “Will I go?” he said, “No, no, no, I’ll go.” He rolled it down there and that was the match over.
RYDER CUP ROSTERS: USA | EUROPE
What did you learn from Seve about helming a team?
A lot. You try and pick the really good bits from all the captains, put them all together and hopefully your bit is a little better. It’s a natural progression.
Which player did you most relish playing against in the Ryder Cup?
I always loved playing Tiger. Lee [Westwood] and I had a very good record together in the Ryder Cup. We played against the world No. 1, 2 and 3 on three different occasions and managed to win each of those times. Tiger and Duval (1999), Tiger and Phil (2004) and Tiger and Furyk (2006). We came out on top each of those times. When I was coming through Tiger was the man. He was the guy setting the benchmark higher than anybody had ever set it before. And that’s no disrespect to Jack Nicklaus. It’s just with his scoring that Tiger was doing then. As it stands right now Jack Nicklaus is the best player to ever play the game. But Tiger was pushing, pushing, pushing, and to have the opportunity to play the world’s best player -- not just to be a friend of him -- but to play against him, was always a thrill.
It will be strange seeing Tiger on the sidelines as a vice captain for the U.S.
Yeah, that will be a bit different. But the fact that he will be there is good for the Ryder Cup. The fact that he shows his keenness and eagerness to be part of team USA. I’m sure he is hating his position at the moment where he can’t get out and actually play competitively because he is a competitor. But you know I think he will be doing everything he can to obviously help to come up with the winning formula.
Could you see Tiger playing in another Ryder Cup?
I would love to say yes because he’s a good friend of mine. He certainly has the talent to do it. From my point of view I would love to see him play in another one, yes.
Tiger and Phil Mickelson are 13-17-3 and 14-18-6, respectively, in the Ryder Cup. Why do you suppose they haven’t experienced more success?
Maybe they’ve always been more comfortable in stroke play than they have been in match play. Match play is a completely different format, there’s a different arc to match play. You get momentum, you keep momentum, you try and wrestle it back off. And it swings quickly.
You were a captain’s pick at the K Club in 2006 and went 3-0. You must place a lot of value on those selections.
There’s more pressure on a captain’s pick than on any other guys on the team. You’re there at the behest of the captain. You have got a massive vote of confidence that you add to the team. So there is a totally different outlook on it as a captain’s pick. Hence, what I’ve always said is that it would be difficult to pick a rookie. [Ed. note: Clarke picked Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Ryder Cup rookie Thomas Pieters after this interview was conducted.] I didn’t say I wouldn’t, but it’s difficult because when you’re a captain’s pick there is more pressure. And because of that you are looking at guys who have had experienced it before to be able to withstand that pressure. The Ryder Cup has its own pressure as it is -- put a rookie on top of that and it’s very, very difficult. Certainly as a captain’s pick you feel under added pressure to not let your team down or your captain down.
Calling players who didn’t make the team must be one of the hardest part of being captain.
Yes, it is. And calling friends that don’t make it. My own personal scenario where I didn’t get picked in 2008 [by Nick Faldo], that hurt because I played well and had my second win that year just prior. But I was man enough to understand that it was a captain’s choice. Hopefully with the guys that I have to pick they will respect me enough as a person to understand that all I’m doing is what I feel is best for the team. Yes, I may lose a friendship or two, but all I’m trying to do is the best I possibly can for the European tour and the European Ryder Cup team. I think for the most part they will all understand that.
Rory McIlroy hasn’t been himself in 2016. Have you spoken to him lately? [Ed. note: A couple of weeks after this interview was conducted, McIlroy won the Deutsche Bank Championship.]
I’ve talked to him quite a lot. His ballstriking is probably as good as it’s ever been. He’s not far off at all with that. He seems a little bit lost with his putting at the moment. He’s working hard on that. I don’t want to say too much, it’s his position to say it, not mine to comment on that particular aspect of things. But I know he is very excited. He’s working away on a few things. He’s keen. I had a brilliant conversation with him on the phone standing on the beach here the other night for maybe 30 minutes. I couldn’t get him off the phone; he was just full of conversation. He’s in great form right now. He’s ready and wants to play. He really wants to play. And not just the Ryder Cup, but the FedEx Cup playoffs too. He’s just so keen to play.
You played in the 2002 and ’09 PGA Championships at Hazeltine. Any particular holes there that you expect will be pivotal in the matches?
I think 16 would have played a key role but it’s not because it will be the seventh now for logistics [the front nine will be comprised of holes 1-4 and 14-18, while the back nine will be holes 10-13 and 5-9]. That hole would have been very decisive in terms of match play because of the severity and difficulty of the hole. Now with the way they’ve turned it around, you’ve got 16 and 17. Sixteen is a reachable par 5, very narrow little green, lots can happen, have a go at it, come up short and go in the water, go long and you can chip it back in the water quite easily. And then a great little par-3.
But that’s brilliant, because I think you’re going to see holes with guys trying to win as opposed to playing defensively and trying to make a par and not lose the hole. I think the guys are going to be forced into taking on the holes. Fifteen as well, you have to get a good tee shot and then you have a short iron, but you miss the fairway and you will struggle with the trees there. Hazeltine isn’t the longest course in the world, and I’m sure Davis isn’t going to set it up with chip out rough and stuff. It will be set up in a way that we’re there to entertain and give the spectators a lot to shout about.
What’s the best shot you hit in a Ryder Cup?
The best shot I hit in any Ryder Cup was my first tee shot at the K Club in 2006 [six weeks after his wife Heather died]. Because I had no idea if I was going to duff it, top it or miss it. I had no idea. And I hit it 320 straight down the middle.
And the best shot you’ve witnessed in a Ryder Cup?
There are too many to mention. And I would say that from both sides, the European and USA side. As a spectator it’s very, very hard to realize and understand how much pressure these guys are under when they tee it up in a Ryder Cup. There is nothing else like it. That’s all. It’s nothing like coming down the stretch to win a major or winning tournaments; there’s nothing to compare to it. Because you’re playing for your teammates. Because the golf is so good, it would be unfair of me to pick out one shot. But anytime they hit a great shot under that amount of pressure is sensational.
As a captain you’re involved in pretty much every decision, yet when play starts, the results are out of your hands. Will there be a sense of relief that you got to that point, or is it worse then because you have no control?
The times I’ve been a vice captain I would go down and watch some of our players and see them hit a draw into a back right flag and say, “What are you doing that for?” I wanted to go and grab the club and say, “No, it’s a little soft cut.” Everybody sees the game differently. From that point of view, as a vice captain it’s quite difficult. You see the shot one way. That was certainly true at Celtic Manor [in 2010]. At Medinah [in 2012] I was somewhat calmer about everything. And I’m sure as captain, yes I will be nervous as soon as we all go off. But it will be fine. Those guys are there for a reason. That’s why they are playing.
You caught an almost record-breaking Permit fish in the waters around the Abaco Club, which you jokingly compared to winning a major. How elusive is the Permit fish?
Very, very elusive. You go hunting them. If you catch one or two a year, that’s fantastic. You can stand on the front of the boat for two or three days before you even see one. You can spend eight hours a day and not even throw the fly at them. But the world record will go here in these waters.
When you look back in 20 years, what is likely to be your proudest accomplishment?
I’m an Open champion, caught one of the best fish in the ocean two pounds off a world record, and if I feel like I’ve been the best Ryder Cup captain I could possibly be, then I can’t ask for anything more than that. I can only ask my players to do their best. So the result is out of my hands. Such is golf. If the other team plays better, than I’ll heartily congratulate my good friend Davis and that’s the way it is. If I was to think that there was something I missed than I would be bitterly disappointed with myself. As long as I don’t let those guys down, I’ll be happy.