If still looking fresh after flying halfway around the world was measured in the same way as golf, Darren Clarke would likely be a pro at that, too.
Nine time zones and less than forty-eight hours ago, the Northern Irishman was in Japan, tying for fourth in the Mastercard Japan Championship on the Champions Tour. Now, he’s sitting in the corner of the Ugadale Hotel in Machrihanish talking about Game Of Thrones.
Clarke, as it happens, is a huge fan of the show, which ended its eight-season run just a few weeks ago. The ending – no spoilers – left a considerable chunk of ‘Thronies’ rather underwhelmed. Clarke hasn’t yet decided how he feels about it.
“I’ve watched the last series twice now,” he says. “There’s a lot of good stuff in it but, when it was over, I don’t know if I was disappointed because of how it finished or because it was finished. I don’t know.”
The meticulously layered trials and tribulations of the Starks, Lannisters and Co. has come up in a wider, more serious conversation about Clarke’s homeland. Large parts of Game Of Thrones were filmed in Northern Ireland. That, along with other high-profile projects and occasions, including next week’s Open Championship, is helping to challenge perceptions about the country.
The mood now is optimistic, a far cry from the fear of days gone by and the trauma and terror of the ‘Troubles’.
“If you go back even twenty years, would Northern Ireland hosting an Open have been a possibility?” Clarke asks himself. “No. Not a chance.”
His conviction is understandable. It wasn’t until April 1998, that the Good Friday Agreement – a peace deal between the British and Irish governments – was signed.
It was a landmark treaty that committed both sides to ‘exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues’ and was predicated on the decommissioning of weapons held by paramilitary groups, as well as the normalisation of security arrangements in Northern Ireland.
It’s almost impossible to overstate its significance. Between 1969 and the signing of the agreement, approximately 3,500 were killed as a result of the conflict.
Now, though, things are different. Northern Ireland is a progressive, positive place, and the Open coming to town is a just reward for the giant strides the country has made.
“The Open is one of the biggest sporting events in the world and for that to come to Northern Ireland is incredible,” adds Clarke. “The pictures that will be sent around the world will give us a huge boost. Our courses have always been busy but, since Royal Portrush was announced as an Open venue again, it’s been even busier. Now, imagine what that’s going to be like after people have had the chance to see it host the championship on TV.”
Clarke will take his place in the field by virtue of his Open victory at Royal St George’s in 2011. At the age of 42, he held off Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson to win his maiden major at the 54th time of asking.
“I guess for any young guy growing up, the Open Championship’s the one and winning it is the dream,” he says. “When I was a young lad practicing at Dungannon Golf Club, the putts I had were always to win the Open. It was never for the US Open or even the Masters.
“Growing up over here, you knew all about the Open. You knew it was the oldest, the biggest, the best and so on. And if you missed that putt, you’d rake it right back and it would be, ‘Okay, this is to win in a play-off’. So, when you actually get there and you achieve something you’ve wanted to do since you were a kid, it’s very special.
“The enormity of it hits you – and I know a lot of other players say this, too – when you look at the names on the Jug. That’s the ‘wow’ moment. That’s when you say to yourself, ‘Yeah, I’ve done okay here.’”
Speaking of the Claret Jug, Clarke’s own replica is on display, appropriately enough, in the Royal Portrush clubhouse. Better there than gathering dust in his house.
“If I had it, it would be in a drawer somewhere,” he admits. “I wouldn’t have it out on display. That’s why I decided to lend it to Portrush. It sits there on the right-hand side when you walk in alongside my gold medal and Fred Daly’s gold medal from when he won in 1947.”
That gesture alone demonstrates the affection Clarke has for this year’s venue, a course he describes as ‘a piece of Harry Colt genius’.
“It’s very fair but if you get aggressive with it, you’d better be able to hit it straight because, if you don’t, you’ll be packing your bags and going home on the Friday night,” he says. “It’s a proper test of golf. I think the guys will love it.”
One of those guys will be Clarke’s fellow Northern Irishman and Portrush native, Graeme McDowell. The former US Open champion secured his place in his hometown Open at the Canadian Open last month, holing a huge putt at the last to claim one of the three spots on offer.
“What a way to do it,” smiles Clarke. “Good on him. I’m delighted for him. It’ll be a better event with G-Mac in the field. I know there had been talk of a special invite for him but that’s not the R&A’s way, that’s not how they do things, so for him to earn his spot was just fantastic. Brilliant.”
Along with McDowell and Rory McIlroy, Clarke is well aware there will be many pairs of eyes trained on him this week.
After thirty years as a professional golfer, he’s well accustomed to pressure. But playing in arguably the most prestigious championship in the world in front of his own people?
“And I know the course inside out. I’ve been playing it since I was, what, 12-years-old or something. I don’t think there’ll be anybody who knows the golf course any better than I do. I know where to hit it and where not to hit it, and I’ve seen it in pretty much every kind of weather. Now, am I going to win the tournament? Probably not. But could I have a really good week? Of course I could. How good that week might be, well, we shall see.”
There have been some suggestions that, as an elder statesman of Northern Irish golf, Clarke might be handed the ‘honour’ of getting the championship underway on Thursday. You get the feeling, though, he doesn’t see it as the compliment it’s intended to be. More like a back-handed compliment.
“The first tee shot is almost like a ceremonial duty, a bit like an admission that you’re not going to win,” he says. “But I’m a competitive guy. I don’t know. It’s difficult. I don’t get any say in the matter but, look, I’m exempt in this championship until I’m sixty so I’ll play whenever they want me to tee off.
“I’m excited for it. It’s going to be an unbelievable week.”
• Darren Clarke was speaking to bunkered at Machrihanish Dunes, part of the Southworth Development property portfolio.