Archive for Wednesday, October 4, 2006

An odd couple of champions

October 4, 2006


— Two celebrations separated by Sundays on either side of the Irish Sea could not have looked more different. Nor could they have been more emotionally connected.

Darren Clarke lit up a cigar when the Ryder Cup was securely in Europe's possession, then chugged a pint of Guinness from the balcony of The K Club and raised the empty glass as a trophy for all Ireland to see.

One week later, in a scene far more scripted for no other reason than it has become routine, camera flashes and Tiger Woods' smile illuminated the gloomy skies north of London as he posed with the trophy from the American Express Championship. It was his eighth victory of the year, carving out more room for his name in PGA Tour record books.

Already close friends, they were linked these last two weeks as much for what they had gained as what they had lost.

Clarke was a wild card in more ways than one at the Ryder Cup.

He left the spotlight in July to cherish the final days with his dying wife and two young sons, and no one was sure what to expect from him until he became the first European captain's pick to go undefeated. Clarke polished off a 3-0 record six weeks to the day that Heather lost a long and spirited battle with cancer.

Hard as it is to fathom now, there were questions swirling around Woods' future three months ago.

He had spent more than a year watching his father slowly succumb to cancer. Earl Woods died May 3, and his son disappeared from golf for nine weeks. Woods returned at the U.S. Open and missed the cut for the first time ever in a major. Since then, he has won six of his last eight events, including six in a row on the PGA Tour.

Asked to define a year in which he won two majors and became the first player in PGA Tour history to win at least eight times in three seasons, Woods replied, "A loss."

As joyous as they felt in victory, neither Woods nor Clarke will remember 2006 as anything but a loss.

Clarke will fall short of the required 15 starts to keep his PGA Tour membership, but that won't matter. For the second straight year, the tour has waived that requirement because of the circumstances involving his wife. The 38-year-old from Northern Ireland is 120th on the money list, but will have no trouble getting any exemption he wants.

"The PGA Tour has been kind to me, and unbelievably fair," Clarke said Sunday after he tied for 26th at The Grove. "Next year, I'm going to try to play as much as I can. But the whole schedule revolves around my kids."

Clarke has drawn closer than ever to 8-year-old Tyrone and 6-year-old Conor. Three days after a massive Ryder Cup celebration came an even greater one - Conor's birthday party.

"To see the look on Conor's face when he turned 6 was worth a million Ryder Cups," Clarke said.

Clarke has not gone into a shell. He is among the most popular European players, but he has a fiery side, especially when he's not playing his best. That much was clear when one of his managers watched him walked briskly toward the scoring trailer, looking for the board to see how he finished and to gauge his mood.

But his perspective clearly has changed. He is a father first.

"When they're not in school, I won't be playing golf," Clarke said. "Hopefully, I won't be playing because there might be a major championship that week. But golf is not my priority anymore. My boys are."

Woods was surprised he needed more than two months to cope with the death of his father, role model and inspiration. Then again, he had never experienced the loss of someone so close.


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