• Rewind to 2006

The year Darren Clarke stood tall

Ben Blackmore September 30, 2010
Darren Clarke produced one of the memorable Ryder Cup performances after losing his wife Heather © Getty Images

Those who have tasted the Ryder Cup, those who have felt the blood pumping inconveniently and relentlessly through the body as juddering hands do their very best just to keep the first tee shot on the fairway, claim the nerves and emotions of the biennial event compare to no other in golf.

The build-up to the first day lasts a week but dominates the previous several, the roar at the first hole turns golf from a game of gentlemanly jousting to a sometimes-unruly battle of egos and heart, and the songs from the host crowd create a home and away end usually associated with football or rugby.

All of that will hit the 24 players involved at the 38th Ryder Cup on Friday, but for two men the 2010 showdown will seem a far cry from the last time USA locked horns with Europe on foreign soil.

Back in 2006 at the K Club, the last time Europe won the Ryder Cup, Tiger Woods was a peerless phenomenon, striding towards the status of the world's best ever golfer, without a hint of the troubles that follow him to Celtic Manor on Friday. Comparing that Tiger to this requires an extensive acceptance of hindsight.

The Tiger Woods of 2006 did not need a wild-card to qualify for the American team. In fact, it was almost considered an honour to have him on the team. Woods was on his way to claiming the PGA Player of the Year, winning the 2006 Open and PGA Championships. He had also won the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, where nobody could have forecast his lowest moment in golf just four years later.

Woods was one of five of the current crop of Americans to feature at the K Club, alongside Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson and Stewart Cink. Even fewer of the Europeans have survived four years on, with only Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington remaining in a playing capacity.

Much like Woods' fall from grace (despite his remaining world No. 1 status), the enigmatic Sergio Garcia also has reason to look back enviously. The Spaniard was Europe's highest-ranked player in Ireland, sitting at No. 8 in the world, yet there will be no miraculous putts from the little man in Wales as he participates only as an assistant. If Garcia's fortunes nosedived in similar manner to Woods', Westwood's have gone in the opposite direction - climbing to world No. 3 having been a wild-card pick at the K Club.

However, it was another of Europe's wild-cards who, quite deservedly, dominated all headlines throughout three poignant days in County Kildare. Darren Clarke, the always-likeable Darren Clarke, had lost his wife Heather just one month previously, yet captain Ian Woosnam retained faith that the Ryder Cup could act as a healing process - not an extra weight to shoulder - for the Northern Irishman in front of the world's cameras.

As Woods strode confidently to the first tee alongside Furyk to take on Colin Montgomerie and Harrington in the opening fourball, he for once became only a sideshow as the Irish crowd awaited Clarke. Naturally there was a cynical intrigue surrounding Clarke's arrival as the world waited to see if he would hold it together, yet when he emerged alongside Westwood for the final fourball of the day, the noise of the crowd reached a level of authentic encouragement that had arguably never been witnessed on a golf course before. Woosnam would later declare: "The crowd have made history this week." Clarke did not let them down either, combining with fellow wildcard Westwood to beat world No. 2 Phil Mickelson and world No. 15 Chris Di Marco to put Europe 2½-1½ up after the morning's play and they turned that into a 5-3 lead by the end of the day.

Darren Clarke provided a memorable image in celebration © Getty Images

On Saturday, it was time for Woods and Clarke to go head-to-head. Both men had lost loved ones in the calendar year (Woods had lost his father Earl), and the world No. 1 later spoke of Clarke acting as an inspiration. Certainly it was the Irishman who was playing inspired golf as he and Westwood completed another victory, subjecting Woods to his second straight loss. A hole-in-one by Casey, left out of this year's event, meant Europe, who had won by a record score two years earlier, entered Sunday's singles matches with a 10-6 advantage, needing only another 4½ points to register a third straight win for the first time.

If Europe needed a sobering thought to keep their feet on the ground, it was Brookline in 1999, when the Americans roared back from an identical margin to triumph. Woosnam had to find the right balance to keep his players' minds on the job, yet he could not resist a sentimental decision to send Clarke out seventh, where he felt the winning putt may arrive.

Clarke, whose emotions continued to bubble close to the surface, took to the course on the banks of the River Liffey one more time, this time without a partner for support as he took on Zach Johnson. The 38-year-old responded magnificently, birdying the fifth before sinking a 25-foot putt to pick up another shot at the tenth. Then came another piece of Clarke magic as an incredible chip from 70 feet added to Johnson's woes at 12.

Clarke looked set to end arguably the toughest week of his sporting life by draining the winning putt for Europe, but Henrik Stenson, hammering Vaughn Taylor, robbed his team-mate of the fairytale moment. Nevertheless, Clarke wrapped up a 3&2 victory over Johnson to complete his third win of the weekend, at which point the emotions finally proved too much.

"This is as good as it gets," stated a tearful Clarke. "My team has been unbelievable and the support the Americans have shown me has been incredible. The support from the crowd is something that I will cherish forever."

If Clarke had been given something - courage maybe - by the crowd, he certainly repaid them with a picture-book climax to the weekend, sinking a pint of Guinness in one attempt to leave a unforgettable image on the 2006 Ryder Cup.

Woosnam, who celebrated his record-equalling 18½-9½ victory by joining Clarke in his drinking antics, commented: "I'd like to say thanks to the crowd. I knew it was going to be loud but I didn't know it would be as good as this. The crowd have made history this week. I can pass the captaincy on to Nick Faldo now and he can try for four in a row."

Faldo would fail.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ben Blackmore Close
Ben Blackmore is deputy editor of ESPN.co.uk