When his wife Alison left Newport Beach, California, on March 8, Darren Clarke could not have imagined they would spend the next five months apart.
After he completed the final round of the PGA Tour Champions’ Hoag Classic, she flew to their home in Portrush, Northern Ireland, just before international travel was halted by the coronavirus pandemic. Clarke found himself alone at their place at The Abaco Club on Winding Bay in the Bahamas from March 14 until five weeks ago, when their eldest son Tyrone managed to join him.
The Clarkes were an ocean away on their eighth wedding anniversary on April 11.
So Clarke’s excitement to return to Firestone Country Club for the first time in nine years for this week’s Bridgestone Senior Players Championship might be superseded by the fact that Alison will join him in Akron on Saturday night.
“That will be wonderful,” Clarke said by phone from Abaco on Thursday. “She’s been back in Northern Ireland with our son Conor. With airports, borders, everything being shut, it’s been a logistical nightmare trying to get everybody together. It actually hasn’t been possible.”
The 2003 winner of the World Golf Championships-NEC Invitational and the 2011 British Open champion, Clarke will be playing his first Champions Tour event since the lockdown began. He doesn’t know what lies ahead for the rest of the season amid COVID-19, except that tour protocols will reduce him to delivery or carryout from his favorite restaurant, Ken Stewart’s Grille.
“I’ve got no idea what the real world is really like,” he said, days from emerging from his pandemic paradise.
Clarke was frustrated he was forced to communicate with his wife and sons via WhatsApp and video calls twice a day, but admitted, “At least we were seeing each other a daily basis.” Despite the separation anxiety, Clarke knows he was lucky to be quarantined at The Abaco Club.
He said Abaco Island has had only one known case of COVID-19. The club has repaired damage from Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that destroyed nearby Marsh Harbour last September; he said that town may be five years from normalcy. The Abaco Club’s Scottish-style links course regarded as the best in the Bahamas remained open, as did its beach bar Flippers, 20 yards from the first tee.
Clarke said he cooked for himself, played golf and went fly fishing for permit, which he said is his “thing” while there.
“They’re the holy grail of flying fishing,” Clarke said. “They’re very spooky. You’ve got to basically be able to throw a minimum 80-foot cast in 25 mph crosswinds and land it in a one-foot square. You can do all that perfect and they still won’t eat.
“That’s my complete obsession. They call it permit fever. I’ve been doing it now for a good few years. They are incredibly difficult and frustrating. Not only do I do that, but I also try to play golf. So I picked two of the hardest things you could possibly do.”
With Clarke were a few good friends — course superintendent Matt Dimase, food and beverage manager John Wiley, development officer Kevin O’Malley and golf director Brian Shaver.
Clarke, 51, has always done everything to excess, and that included consuming his Flippers drink of choice, a Sea Breeze (usually vodka and cranberry with a splash of grapefruit).
“They’ve got a very heavy pour down here, which leads to a very sore head in the mornings,” Clarke said. “I tend to enjoy myself wherever I go and these five months have been no exception.
“Unfortunately, I’ve been dragged towards Flippers a lot, so exercise hasn’t been at the top of the agenda. Eating and drinking however have. It’s been quite a good fun time with my friends, but I’m ready to get back to playing again and seeing the guys on tour and trying to be competitive again.”
Five months of merriment did not keep Clarke from working on his game.
“I’ve been practicing an awful lot. Hopefully the state of the game is OK,” he said. “You can practice all you want, but you never really know until you have a card in your hand, until you get into competition. I worked really hard on a lot of things I thought I needed to and we shall see what happens next week.”
Clarke captured the 2011 British Open at Royal St. George’s, at age 42 becoming the oldest winner of the event since Roberto De Vicenzo in 1967. But Clarke said he no longer basks in that glow.
“It’s wonderful to win the tournament that I wanted to win as a kid. The guys jab at me every now and again when they win a hole off me in Nassau,” he said. “It’s not something that I think about an awful lot. I achieved my dream, which not too many people actually do, so I’m very fortunate in that way. Maybe I should revisit it a little bit more often in my thoughts.”
Winless on his two years on the Champions Tour, Clarke can think of no better place for that breakthrough than Firestone, where his 12-under par 270 in 2003 was four strokes better than Jonathan Kaye.
“It would be wonderful to win at Firestone,” he said. “I’ve given myself a few chances to win, not as many as I would have liked. That’s why I’ve been working my a– off and practicing as hard as I have. I want to win. If that was to come sooner rather later, I would really enjoy it.”
With the impending arrival of Alison, the Bridgestone Senior Players will provide more than a South Course challenge for Clarke.
Miss Northern Ireland and runner-up as Miss United Kingdom in 1987, Alison (nee Campbell) founded Belfast-based ACA Models in 1990. Alison met Clarke on a blind date set up by golfer Graeme McDowell, a Portrush native.
Clarke’s wife Heather died in 2006 at age 39 after a four-year battle with breast cancer. Their sons Tyrone and Conor were 8 and 5, respectively.
“I was still living in London and Graeme suggested, ‘I’ve got a friend you might want to meet,’” Clarke said of finding Alison. “We spent a weekend in London and got along really well. It was time for me to move back to Northern Ireland again. She has her business there.
“It was one of those things that just worked out. She’s a wonderful lady.”