There’s the Darren Clarke of reputation and there’s another Darren Clarke. A party-loving Northern Irishman who happens to be a professional golfer, and a professional golfer from Northern Ireland who happens to like a party. An uncomplicated Everyman who goes with the flow, and a tortured soul whose endless striving keeps him awake at night.
They say you can’t hide your real self for ever and in Clarke’s case the truth revealed itself over four windswept days this summer at Royal St George’s, at Sandwich in Kent, when the veteran golfer from Portrush outplayed the best in the world to win the Open Championship. Famously, he followed his victory with the celebration to end all celebrations, turning up for a press conference the next day without having slept.
Yet in any sport, you never win the big one if you aren’t serious about your craft. “People like to say I’m out drinking all the time, but that’s just not the case,” he says. “Take last week. I was down at Royal Portrush golf club nine hours every day,working and working. I haven’t played very well since the Open and it’s been driving me crazy.
“I’ve always been like that, and the people who know me best will tell you I’ve been even worse lately. I feel I need to validate what I did in the summer. I feel I need to win something.”
That hunger may be met at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, where he’s one of the favourites. “I grew up watching the show, so of course I’d be delighted if I won, but there are some great candidates – Mo Farah, Rory McIlroy and Mark Cavendish are all really strong.”
He’s right. But they don’t have what Clarke has – a genuine connection with the man and woman in the street, the feeling that for all his sporting gifts, he is simply one of them.
Darren Clarke has won 22 golf tournaments around the world. He has contended in majors, beaten Tiger Woods in his prime and played in five Ryder Cups. But to the wider public he will always be remembered and admired for the way he responded to the death of his wife, Heather, from breast cancer, in August 2006. He was 37 at the time, with two young sons, Tyrone and Conor, and a career some believed might be over.
Six weeks later he was back on the golf course, playing a pivotal role in a comprehensive victory over the US in the Ryder Cup in Ireland. The sight of him in tears, falling into the arms of Europe captain Ian Woosnam, remains one of the defining sporting images of the decade.
Five years later, Clarke, 43, has returned home to Portrush and is engaged to Alison Campbell, a former Miss Northern Ireland who runs a modelling agency. His life has moved on, even if it keeps pulling him back to the past. “I get asked all the time about Heather, and I’m a bit reluctant to go there. I don’t want people to think I’m looking for sympathy,’’ he says.
Spend any time in Clarke’s company, though, and it becomes apparent that Heather’s death has shaped the man he is today. “I used to be one of those guys who was travelling the world, playing golf, doing great and being a bit flash. And I probably wasn’t as good as I should have been,’’ he says, pausing to reflect.
“There was nothing positive about what happened to Heather, but it did mean I got so much closer – unbelievably closer – to my boys. I could have fallen into a downward spiral of self-pity, but there comes a time when you have to stand up and be counted, and that’s what I did. For myself and for the boys.”
They moved back to Northern Ireland in summer 2010. Life in London had been lived behind high walls and electric gates. Clarke was back on tour and travelling a lot; even when home he barely saw Tyrone and Conor. “It was ten minutes in the morning and ten in the evening, and that wasn’t acceptable any longer.”
The move couldn’t have gone better. When Clarke’s on the road, the boys stay with his sister and family, who live nearby. When he’s home, he has time to be a dad. “During the summer I take them down to Royal Portrush golf club at 9am and pick them up at 8pm. That’s what I used to do when I was a kid,’’ he says. “I don’t want to sound too corny, but it’s one big happy family.”
He has returned to the circle of friends he had before. “There are four or five of us. We meet up for a game of social golf, have a pint. There are a couple of local pubs where I have a bit of craic. That’s something I didn’t have in England.”
The effects are obvious. He has, he admits, occasionally been “headstrong and arrogant”. These days he isn’t a pussycat, but he has mellowed. “I definitely feel I’m a better person to be around. Materially, there aren’t many things I want because I’ve been foolish enough to have had them all in the past. I have a much simpler way of life and it’s made a huge difference.”
It’s a familiar story. You can take the boy out of Portrush… Darren Clarke is happy and he’s Open champion. But most of all, he’s home.
BBC Sports Personality of the Year is on Thursday 22 December at 8pm on BBC1