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The Good Times Golfer

Darren Clarke is emerging from the grief over his wife's death from cancer in 2006, and beginning to regain his zest for life, and golf
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Arnon Milchan, September/October 2008

Darren Clarke held on for a three-stroke victory in a thrilling Open Championship at Royal Saint George on Sunday. The victory for the 43-year-old golfer from Northern Ireland is particularly sweet. He won his first major and won the Open after 20 tries. The victory for cigar-loving Clarke is a new chapter in his interesting and difficult life. Three years ago, Cigar Aficionado profiled the golfer. Here is his story.

The laughs, the barbs, the back-and-forth, the "stick" were coming easily for Darren Clarke. The impish grins, the mocking glares, the talk of Guinness (oh, the talk of Guinness): the man was having a rollicking bit of "craic"—that's fun in common Irish slang—at his press conference for the Irish Open.

Later, on the practice range at Adare Manor, with coach Ewen Murray and caddie Phil "Wobbly" Morbey, he hitched up his pants as high as he could and stooped his shoulders to mock a certain well-known swing coach. "Hey, Westwood, who's this?" he shouted to close friend Lee Westwood hitting balls 20 yards away. "C'mon, who's this?"

"We like to have a bit of fun out here," says Clarke, without letting anyone else know who he is impersonating.

Which prompts this comment from Westwood: "Around Darren, anything could happen. It normally involves Guinness. He likes his Guinness."

Darren Clarke loves his Guinness as part of a life he loves. With the body of a bass, the voice of a baritone and the laugh of a tenor, the Irishman fancies fine cars, fine clothes, fine wine, fine cigars, fine food and a trout at the end of a fly line. He enjoys the company of captains, kings, competitors and caddies, embracing all in his big arms and big heart.

But when Clarke's 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole of the BMW Asian Open in Shanghai in April fulfilled its destiny by slamming into the cup, it meant far more than just another European Tour victory and a cause for a Guinness celebration. All the cars, the wine, the cigars, and yes, even the Guinness, hadn't meant nearly so much to Clarke since his wife, Heather, had been diagnosed with breast cancer in December of 2001. The trappings of the good life, and golf itself, didn't mean anything at all when she died in August of 2006, and hadn't meant all that much since. How could they when his two young sons, Tyrone and Conor, needed his love and attention far more than his golf game?

So when he hoisted the trophy in Shanghai, it heralded not only that his game was back, but that a substantial part of his life had returned, that a healing had taken place, that body and soul had recovered from a cruel blow. It wasn't easy coming down the stretch that Sunday afternoon. He missed shots and short putts when victory seemed as if it would be a breeze. "I lost my concentration and started thinking about Heather and the boys," he says. "It's been like that the past few years."

His father, Godfrey, and mother, Hettie, know that all too well. "It took him a while to grieve, to get beyond what happened, like anyone would," says Godfrey. "While we knew what the end would be, it still comes as a shock. One day she is there, the next she isn't. It's taken a long time to get over Heather. It's just the way it is."

All of his wife's travail, and the impact it had on his game, had to be played out in the glare of the public spotlight, and this for a player who is immensely popular. He wasn't winning because he wasn't practicing, and when he did, it was difficult to focus or find meaning in it. He won a tournament in Japan in both 2004 and 2005, but hadn't won a significant event on the European or PGA tours since 2003, and the promise of his game, most prominent when he beat Tiger Woods to win the Accenture Match Play Championship in 2000, had evaporated.

"People go through all sorts of stuff and I'm not the only one to be in this position," says Clarke. "Cancer has no respect for people. I'm not the only one to be affected by this. Unfortunately, mine was a much more public thing because of what I do and whatever success I've had. It was a very, very difficult thing to manage my emotions in public. People would always want to know what was going on. Getting inside the ropes, practicing and playing was a bit of an escape, yes. And a few times I didn't play that bad. But toward the end of rounds my mind would have trouble focusing and that was a lot to do with what was going on outside the ropes."

The single biggest test of his golfing career came just weeks after Heather's death. Captain Ian Woosnam offered Clarke a spot on the Ryder Cup team for the matches at The K Club in September. Clarke had not played well enough to earn the point necessary to make the team automatically, but Woosnam wanted Clarke to be competing in Ireland if Clarke himself wanted to do so. He didn't want to be a burden or just a popular choice, and for the weeks leading up to the emotionally charged event, he worked as hard as he could while attending to the needs of his children.

"The difficulty was in the space of five weeks getting him to stand on the first tee and have him perform," says coach and close friend Murray. "He didn't want to be a sympathetic pick. He discussed it with Heather in her final days and it was her wish that he play. The effort he put into that was extraordinary. I will ever be in awe of him for the sorrow, the kids missing their mum, Darren missing his partner, his life upside down, yet for eight hours a day he was able to honor her memory, to try to be in a position to play. When he beat Zach Johnson in the singles [the match that retained the Cup for Europe], his life on the golf course was effectively over. It was going to be the end for quite some time, and it was."

From that point on his number one priority was his sons. Perhaps more than any other athletes, golfers are selfish about themselves. The very best of players, no matter the amount of God-given talent, must still practice long hours to keep their skills sharp. They must also fulfill their endorsement obligations, talk to the media, sign autographs, give a part of themselves to the public. And Clarke was always so comfortable in the public eye, outgoing, gregarious, fun-loving. But now he had to be something else first and foremost—a father. "I can't be so selfish anymore," says Clarke. "The most important thing in my life is my two boys. Golf by nature is a very selfish profession. I've had to balance things up. I've gotten pretty good now about balancing time with my job and with my boys. The desire and determination is still there, maybe more so now. Heather wanted me to keep playing, not just for myself, but for the boys. She wanted some sense of normalcy. She knew things were going to change and she wanted me to go on as a professional golfer, which is what the boys knew me as." His life as a professional golfer could not be the same and really hadn't been the same since Heather was first diagnosed. "He'd be on the range and the phone would ring and he'd walk off under a tree," says his longtime agent, Andrew "Chubby" Chandler. "You knew it wasn't good. He pulled out of tournaments when Heather was going through treatments or big decisions had to be made."

Now he would have to do what Heather had always done: meet the boys' teachers, go to the school plays, the cricket and rugby matches. "I never did any of that," says Clarke. "Heather did it all. Now I do it, and want to do it." "He had to become a single dad, and I think he's done extremely well," says Murray. "Many would have thought he wasn't the guy to do that, but he sorted it all out. The boys are stronger and he's stronger."

And a sense of normalcy returns, which for Clarke is leading a rich, full life while getting back to the top of the game. He has a love interest, Kerry Schiller, a Texan who works in the human resources department of a London law firm. He has renewed dedication to his profession. And soon, he hopes, he will be smoking cigars on the golf course again. "I still smoke cigars all the time, but because my golf hadn't been so good until late, I thought it was a bit silly smoking cigars on the course," he says, relishing the thought of puffing on his favorite cigar, a Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona—Cuban, of course.

He's got scads of them, and Montecristos and Upmanns and God knows what else in five humidors he keeps in his sprawling home on 13 acres in Surrey, outside of London. He grew up in Northern Ireland, but as a globe-trotting professional golfer he prefers to be near Heathrow Airport, where he can hop a flight to Dubai or Shanghai or New York or Johannesburg with ease. He always has a wine cellar stocked with plenty of first-growths, Latour, Margaux, and Pétrus being among his favorites.

"In cigars I like more mild ones, but I'll smoke the occasional Partagas," says Clarke. "My taste in wine would be bigger than cigars and my wine of choice would be Pétrus. People know I like cigars. I get handed them while I'm playing. I've been handed a lot of them in America. Johann Rupert [billionaire CEO of luxury brands company Richemont] gave me some pre-Castro Cubans. I don't know what they are. He said they were good and I didn't ask. I just took them out of his hand as soon as he offered them. It didn't take me long to grasp them, gently I may add. They are beautiful, beautiful."

Surely he must have a keg or two of Guinness in his home bar. "No. Deliberately no," he says with deliberate emphasis. "I'd be spending too much time at the tap."

While he's owned a slew of fancy cars, he says he's running low on them these days. "My everyday car is a Range Rover with an engine upgrade," he says. "I have a [BMW] M6 convertible and I have a Lamborghini in the garage as well. I had Ferraris and Mercedes and Bentleys. Sold them. Cars don't last that long with me. I get bored after a while."

With his good friend Westwood he owns a Challenger jet, a plane that allowed him to take Heather to tournaments and cancer treatments more easily when she had become wheelchair bound. He is also a partner with Westwood in a horse syndicate, though horses are more Westwood's passion than his own. "I think we own seven, eight, nine horses together. Don't ask me because I don't know," says Clarke. "Horses really don't interest me at all. We were together in some horses when we started and then I lost interest. We had one called Grand Jetty that won lots of races, but of course that's the one I ended up not being involved in. Because of the stick and the grief and the hassle they've given me, I've had to back in again. That's the reason I'm in, so they can't give me stick in case we find another one."

It's been 13 years now that Westwood, an Englishman, and Clarke have been close friends. They are quite comfortable giving the business to each other, the stick. When Clarke won in Shanghai, he got oodles of text messages, and of course one would be from Westwood. "He said congratulations followed by a whole bunch of F-words," says Clarke.

"We're pretty similar, like to go out and have a drink and some fun," says Westwood. "I'm more of a vodka drinker, he's a Guinness drinker. I don't think many people could keep up with him, and it's unwise to try to do so. He likes having a cigar, if he can find a place where he can smoke one anymore." Without saying, he likes being in the winner's circle again. Clarke made a decision to stick to the European Tour for the 2008 season, partly to regain his confidence as a contender and partly to be closer to his boys and get home on Sunday nights after tournaments. Clarke has never been a prolific winner, likely because his emotional makeup—never afraid to laugh, never afraid to cry—sometimes gets in his way.

"Darren has always found winning difficult," says agent Chandler. "He's never won as much as he should have. He managed to keep his family and friends on the edge of their seats more than he had to in Shanghai. The right things never seemed to happen to him at the right time. That 40-footer at the last hole would be one of those times when the right thing happened. It's been six months of emotional improvement. You can't imagine how emotionally draining the last four years have been."

Clarke turned 40 in August and, according to Murray, his best years could be ahead of him. He's hired a new physical trainer and fellow professional golfer, Rob Watts, a "bio-mechanic," as Murray puts it. He has a putting consultant, Stephen Feeney, who works with champion darts and snooker players on their targeting skills. He brought Murray, a Sky Sports television commentator, into his entourage just before Heather's death.

"At that point he didn't need a coach. He needed a friend to walk around with when he knew things were poor," says Murray. "He knew there was going to be a spell where he wasn't going to be competitive. I thought it would be a year and it turned out to be 15 months. During that time we took the opportunity to change things he didn't like and to implement things I thought he should do. He's always had the clubface closed, his shoulders have always been tilted, the swing has never gone around him, which it does now. That was the main change. His address position has always been poor. Darren always has had a lot of talent. He could stand on his head and hit the ball. Trouble was, one day wasn't the same as the other. What he's finding now is a bit more consistency. With trust and confidence, he may be someone like Vijay Singh. He may play better in his early 40s than he's done in his 30s.

Ever since being a top junior player in Ireland, confidence has never been a problem for Clarke. Heck, you would have to be confident in yourself to show up at the Irish Amateur Championship wearing pink pants. "The Cork Examiner writer, Charlie Mulqueen, saw him there and called him 'beautiful,'" says Brian Shaw, the head professional at the Doonbeg Golf Club who grew up competing against Clarke. "That nickname, Beautiful, stuck for a while."

There's an old Irish saying, "He's not backwards about going forwards." Shaw felt that it described Clarke perfectly, both for his zest for life and his gift for the game. "Darren would say if we are going out, we'll be hell-bent," says Shaw. "But he wasn't the sort to just go out on a bender. Then he'd practice for four straight days. He watched the pro golfers from an early age, kept his eye on them. He was always a step ahead of us. He was never intimidated by anyone." Not even Tiger Woods, whom he beat in a 36-hole match to win the Accenture Match Play. Woods and Clarke, who both used Butch Harmon as a swing coach at the time, have become friends. At the Ryder Cup in 2006, they embraced on the practice tee, Woods having lost his father, Earl, to cancer that year. "Tiger sent me a text message after I won [in Shanghai], but I'm not going to tell you what it said," says Clarke. "I will say that Tiger has been a very, very good friend. A really good friend."

Good friends, good family, good golf and the good life. Darren Clarke cherishes it all. Look for him to be smoking a Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona on a fairway near you soon. His good life has returned. v

Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

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Comments   1 comment(s)

DENNIS M THRASHER SR — BIRMINGHAM, MI, UNITED STATES,  —  July 19, 2011 12:03pm ET

What a lovely story. Why is it that it takes a loss for us as humans to know what really matters. Now if he could just get his sons on the tour ......


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