It wasn’t long after Darren Clarke defeated Tiger Woods 4&3 in the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in California that he decided he wanted to start giving back to the game of golf. At that stage, the Portrush native was on a steady ascent up the golfing ladder having made two Ryder Cup appearances for Europe with a third soon to follow in 2002.
After numerous lengthy conversations with his manager Chubby Chandler and ISM Chairman Dougie Heather, the Darren Clarke Foundation was fittingly established at the 2002 Seve Trophy at Druids Glen where Clarke was part of a star-studded GB&I side.
In the two decades since the foundation was launched, Clarke has supported young Irish talent regardless of their background while also aiding Irish breast cancer charities and their research across the country.
“Darren was on the GB&I team and Chubby and his colleagues had been talking about some sort of foundation for Darren,” explains Darren Clarke Foundation CEO, Heather.
“He had been influenced by Tiger Woods and Ernie Els, both of whom at that stage had foundations.
“Darren had spoken with both and then Heather [Clarke’s then wife] died from breast cancer in 2006 so she was going through a fairly rigorous treatment programme at that stage. Chubby asked me would I look after this project and I said I would.
“Tiger concentrates on kids of certain backgrounds where it was difficult to get into golf while Ernie concentrated on elite golfers coming through, so he had Charl Schwartzel, Branden Grace and Louis Oosthuizen in the foundation.
“At one stage we got an invitation to send two golfers to Ernie’s foundation tournament in George. So those two foundations were the models we looked at and we wanted to bring in something to do with breast cancer awareness.
“I came back to Chubby and said why not do the whole lot? An elite programme which is what the foundation has really morphed into, and then we aligned ourselves with some breast cancer charities and made donations.
In 2002, the foundation hosted its first Champions Weekend at Portmarnock Golf Club and since then, the event has become legendary with six Girls’ championship winners and ten Boys’ championship winners invited for a weekend of coaching and mentoring with Clarke over the October Bank Holiday weekend.
“What we did 20 years ago was we got in early and made the October Bank Holiday weekend our own, so it didn’t clash with Golf Ireland championships or events. In fairness to the governing body, they have acknowledged that it is our weekend and they have avoided it,” says Heather.
As part of the weekend festivities, the 2011 Open Champion devotes all of his time to the 16 participants, running a short game clinic and a long game clinic while also playing four holes with each group.
The players are treated to golf equipment and apparel while there is a dinner on Saturday night followed by a lunch and presentation on Sunday.
It might appear to be a hectic and relentless schedule, but Clarke gives absolutely everything to make the week a memorable one for those taking part and Heather admits that even twenty years on, Clarke still has a burning passion for it.
“At the dinner, we have two tables of eight and Darren would spend the entire night at both tables with the kids on his own and they could ask him whatever they liked, about golf, Tiger Woods, tournaments etc,” Heather says.
“The kids always love the weekend because we are inundated with thank you notes from them and the parents. He used to give them his number if they ever needed any advice, he would give up a few minutes of his time to take a phone call or meet them at the Irish Open.
“The schedule was very intense but Darren gave 100% to every single thing on the agenda and left no stone unturned. It was incredible.”
The concepts of the foundation are very simple: To grow the game of golf and make it accessible for children of all backgrounds while developing the next crop of emerging young Irish talent.
Judging by the illustrious list of names who have gone on to achieve great things in the professional game, the foundation has achieved its objectives. It’s a testament to the foundation that a plethora of Irish stars have risen to the top of the sport in the intervening years.
Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Leona Maguire, Olivia Mehaffey, and James Sugrue to name a few have all experienced the champions weekend in their junior careers while some elite amateurs are enjoying college careers Stateside.
“We did it in Moyvalley once, we have been to Portugal and Spain as well,” says Heather. “Golf Ireland have thrown a lot of support towards the foundation and they have come to watch the clinics and given us great plaudits.
“The ladies have given us lots of praise, the likes of Mary McKenna, Ita Butler and Valerie Hassett which is great. We had Leona and Lisa [Maguire] who were obviously fantastic. Dermot McElroy shot 67 here when he was 16. Shane Lowry came through as well.
“Shane was in Moyvalley with us. He was always a super confident young fella, super confident in his own ability. He was hitting drivers before going out to play and he calls Darren over to bring his driver and he rips one 300 yards and says ‘see can you get past that one!’
“You have to love it. He had a huge smile on his face!
“We had Paul McBride, Robin Dawson, Tom McKibbin, Olivia Mehaffey, John Murphy and of course James Sugrue. I reminded James of it when he was here after winning his semi-final in the Amateur Championship and he remembered me well.
“He said it was one of the highlights of his junior career that weekend,” Heather smiled which shows the lasting impact of the foundation.
Over the last twenty years, the foundation has run various initiatives which have all proven successful. With the support of Golf Ireland, the foundation sent a golf professional to give lessons to 5,000 children in schools in Northern Ireland over a period of three years while they also gave grants to children to join golf clubs.
Supporting Breast Cancer Awareness and Breast Cancer Research has always been at the heart of the foundation’s ethos and they provided sponsorship and financial support to Breast Cancer Research and the “Play in Pink” Golf Days in clubs all over the country in 2016 and 17.
One of the initiatives of the events was to host a “Sun Smart” day to fund high factor sun tan lotions and put them on the first tee at each event. Clarke also ran the “Heather Clarke” scholarship in Queen’s University which was in the Breast Cancer Research field and he still gets invited to events out of gratitude for what he did for the university.
After twenty years of promoting Irish junior golf and giving back to Breast Cancer Awareness, Heather and Clarke are eager to keep progressing despite the challenges they face. Despite Clarke’s busy Champions Tour schedule clashing with the famed October Bank Holiday weekend, he remains committed to ensuring the continued success and prosperity of his foundation. But most importantly, not letting the children down.
“I’m always on the lookout for new initiatives,” said Heather. “We constantly need to raise funds for the activities. We put 25 to 30 grand into the champions weekends.
“Fundraising was easy when Darren was here. Most of the time we would have charity golf days after the Irish Open. We have enough money to do the champions weekend this year, but we need him to be the drawcard for future fundraisers.
“He really wants to do it. Every time I am in contact with him he brings up the foundation and when we will do the weekend. He comes home for a month for the Open Championship and the Senior Open so he might be able to do something around that period. We could do it in Portrush on a Monday or Tuesday which would work out.
“He still keeps in touch with some of the amateurs who have come through the foundation. He loves having the foundation here. He is very committed to it.”
As with any project, avenues open and close, and a certain direction might be taken. The foundation has morphed into one primarily focussed on the promotion of junior golf in Ireland which is humorous considering the number of children from outside of Ireland who have played their way onto the champions weekend in the past.
That led to an alteration in the eligibility criteria. In the case of a non-Irish international winning one of the sixteen junior championships, a place on the champions weekend would be awarded to the best Irish player, with the original aim of the foundation to nurture a burgeoning Irish talent pool.
The weekends are competitive with silverware on the line. However, the main objective of the week is to have fun with Clarke and there’s no doubt that he gets as much enjoyment out of it as the children.
“What we found was that we had a number of English winners of the Irish Boys Championships and they got invited to the foundation weekend,” says Heather.
“It wasn’t out of disrespect to them or other nations outside of Ireland but we wanted it to be for the promotion of Irish junior golf so we restricted it to golfers who were eligible to play for Ireland.
“Marco Penge came on the weekend with us and he was fantastic, he really contributed to the weekend, he was great fun. That’s really important, they all treated the weekend as fun. It wasn’t overly competitive; it didn’t matter if you didn’t play any good.
“There were trophies for each category, but it was all about the experience and having fun with Darren and having chipping and putting competitions with him, having dinner with him and quizzing him. He absolutely loved it.”
The Darren Clarke Foundation has been a roaring success both in giving young children a pathway to the game of golf and helping support Breast Cancer Research and awareness. After twenty years, there is no doubt Clarke is still unstinting in his desire to keep the foundation progressing for another two decades at least.