Few men know more about Ryder Cup golf than Darren Clarke, a four times winner as a player and once as a non-competing vice-captain.
His captaincy at Hazeltine may have ended in defeat last year but he believes an up-and-coming crop of Europeans can trouble an elite American team in the summer.
In an exclusive interview with Sport360° on behalf of Swiss luxury watch brand Audemars Piguet, Clarke talks Ryder Cup 2018, the chances of old heroes Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter making the team, and why golf is taking its toll on the younger generation.
How good are Europe’s prospects in next year’s Ryder Cup?
I think Jon Rahm has been incredible this year – you see what he’s achieved from just turning pro to becoming No4 in the world. He’s been amazing. Tyrrell Hatton’s had a fantastic year as well, and Tommy Fleetwood’s had that breakthrough and he’s been battling with Justin Rose. Sergio Garcia – there’s so many of them.
So I think the Ryder Cup is going to be exciting again, but saying that the Americans are very, very strong right now. Our captain Thomas Bjorn has got his hands full but I’m sure the team that we’re going to have will be very strong as well.
How do you balance the younger generation with more experienced players in the Ryder Cup?
It depends how many rookies make it again. There were six of them at Hazeltine – I’m sure there will be three or four at least this time. The rookies nowadays aren’t like what they used to be though, they’re more worldly wise and more renowned players. They seem to come through very quickly and play very well very quickly. It will be interesting to see how those guys perform in France. But the good thing about playing the Ryder Cup in France is that we have played a tournament there for so long (Open de France), so we know the golf course really well.
Is it soon time to wave goodbye to Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter as Ryder Cup players?
That’s just the way professional golf is – but that’s not to say Poults or Lee won’t make the team again, they’ve got a really good chance of making it again. But competition for places is getting even more challenging. So yes, while you’d like them to walk out onto the tee, if they haven’t performed all year, you’ve got to maybe have another young guy who has played really well. It’ll be down to Thomas if they don’t qualify.
You’d want them to have a good start to the year and show a little bit of form later in the summer if they don’t make one of the automatic spots.
There’s personalities you want for making the team. Guys who will speak out, guys who will be respected and listened to, and both Lee and and Poults would be two of those sort of guys.
We’ve seen Rory McIlroy battle injury this year. How tough is the modern game on players?
The demands of what they do now and what they physically put their body through, hitting the ball so much faster, it’s much more than it was in my day. That’s why so many guys are getting injured now – because there’s so much torque and speed being generated to maximise distance. It’s like tennis, when the serve started becoming more important than a few years ago. But how much can bodies cope through? So we’ll see how many of the younger generation can keep on playing for a longer period of time.
How can golf tours help protect players?
They’re talking about making tournament golf balls softer to slow it down, maximum speeds you can hit, but they’re still hit the golf ball the same way. There are a lot of people saying we need to rein it in, especially with some of the older courses becoming a little defunct, but at the same time, you or I as a golf fan want to see guys hit it 350 yards. We are an entertainment business.
What’s in your sights in 2018?
I’m doing corporate stuff, commentary and still playing so I’m busy as I’ve ever been. I’ll be playing the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in January. I’m still playing a bit because I turn 50 next August which is when I can start the senior tour. I’ve had a pretty decent career and once you’re a professional golfer and a competitor that never leaves you. So I want to get out onto the Champions Tour and start winning again.
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