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Sunday, September 24, 2006

It was a team effort, but Darren Clarke shone brightest

You couldn't cheer because you were crying, you couldn't cry because you were cheering, but both felt heartwarming and overwhelming anyway. In one unforgettable weekend Darren Clarke gave us a golf performance for all time. Gritty, courageous, inspiring, grateful, humble; a broken man held all the golf world on his back this weekend and we held him up in return.

Struggling past the bitter loss of his soul mate, his better half, his confidante, his partner, Clarke gave his departed wife Heather's memory a tribute that will last throughout recorded golf history.

"She rousted me out of bed, she made me practice, she would have wanted me here" Clarke reminisced, misty-eyed. "The reception everyone gave me was something I'll never forget."

In return, shouldering a loss we all dread in the deepest recesses of our souls, Clarke took on the greatest golf challenge in the world - defeat the U.S. in the Ryder Cup. Clarke responded with the virtuouso performance of his life.

This was his magnum opus. Playing with the heaviest of hearts, yet bouyed by teammates and country, he crafted a perfect 3-0 record.

Courage is the ability to be strong, brave and resolute in the face of adversity, but valor is the ability to be courageous in the face of insurmountable odds and certain failure. That was what Clarke showed us today - valor. His ability to come back and perform at the highest level after such heartbreak is an example to us all. No trophy of victory can ever make up for the loss in his heart, but he created an indisputable masterpiece with which to pay tribute.

Happily, his triumph was embraced by everyone, European and American alike. Though we root for our respective flags, espouse our respective politics, defend our favorite sons with passion, we all stood united as one golf world in acknowledging and savoring something that will never fade in the cultural memory of the game. That's what Samuel Ryder envisioned when he started this competition. It doesn't matter what side wins or loses as long as the game and its spirit win every time.

This year, Clarke's victory was the game's victory and the game's victory was our victory. It was a shared victory - something both sides of the pond were proud to witness. Though there was Casey's incredible walk-off hole-in-one, there was Garcia's fire which the Europeans rallied around and there was Olazabal's remarkable resurgance, this was Clarke's Cup.

Even American's love and revere him. I choose those words with precision - this is not grudging respect, this is not an "oh don't forget about" remembrance - Clarke has led so many times by example - championing, indeed living the spirit of the game. He has become a standard to which we hold our own performances - a paragon of virtue. That is what it means to have a true golfer's soul.

Clarke flat out dismantled Tiger Woods head to head in the Finals of the 2000 World Match Play Championship. Clarke took a self imposed penalty even though rules officials told him he need not last year in a European Tour Tournament. Clarke overcame the most bitter personal loss to record team triumph at the Ryder Cup and set an example for every fan everywhere.

That dear sports fans, is what it means to be a sportsman. Slante, Darren, thank you...and Godspeed.


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