MASHPEE, Mass – When I played Willowbend in a foursome with Darren Clarke on Tuesday, I mentioned while we began to walk toward our carts that a couple of clubs were left on the ground near the first green.
No one moved toward the clubs so I said it again, only a bit louder.
Clarke turned and realized they were his clubs. The 2011 Open champion and 2022 Senior Open winner said he had heard about the clubs being left behind the first time, but he didn’t think they were his because his caddie usually picks them up. On Tuesday, however, Clarke had forgotten that he didn’t have a caddie. He was just riding around Willowbend, playing six holes each with three different media groups.
Clarke, 55, proved to be a regular guy, down to earth, easy going and quick to laugh. On the second tee on the Bay course, he had trouble reading his GPS rangefinder and remarked, “This Bushnell must be drunk because I’m not.”
His personality has made him popular in his home country of Northern Ireland and throughout the golfing world. Golf fans in the U.S. have embraced Clarke, but for much of his career he served as the enemy for one week every two years. That’s the week of the Ryder Cup. Clarke won’t take part in the first Ryder Cup held in Italy Sept. 29-Oct. 1, but he did play for Europe on five Ryder Cup teams, served as vice captain twice and captained the losing European team in 2016 at Hazeltine National GC in Minnesota.
He has no problem with U.S. fans rooting against him during Ryder Cup week.
“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s brilliant. Professional golf is an individual sport. Then once every two years, we get a proper team event, the Ryder Cup, and then it’s patriotism and all that stuff. It’s a little bit different for us guys. In America, it’s: “USA, USA, USA.” In Europe, because we’re made up of so many different countries, it’s “Ole, Ole, Ole.” It’s Spanish. But that’s just the whole ethos of the Ryder Cup and its patriotism. We don’t have that too often in our sport. So it’s brilliant. So bring it on us. That’s the way it should be.”
After the Ryder Cup each year, Americans resumed rooting for Clarke.
“The fans have always been kind to me,” he said. “They’ve always thrown cigars at me and offered me beers and all that. They took to me very well when I played over here on the PGA Tour and I’m grateful for that. I love coming here. I love America. I’ve always been a huge fan.”
Clarke spends most of his spare time in the Bahamas and serves as ambassador for The Abaco Club on the island. The Abaco Club is one of six Southworth properties, joining Willowbend, Renaissance in Haverhill, Creighton Farms outside Washington, D.C., Meredith Bay (N.H.) and Machrihanish Dunes in Scotland.
On Wednesday, Clarke became the ninth person to be inducted into Willowbend’s Hall of Fame.
“It’s awesome,” Clarke said. “You take a look at some of the other honorees who are in there and I’m joining a very privileged list of people. All these things, you don’t really think about them when you’re younger and trying to play, but when you get a little older I guess you become a little more appreciative.”
Clarke joined an esteemed group in the Willowbend Hall of Fame: Paul and Phyllis Fireman, Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, Bobby Orr, Roger Clemens, F. Lee Bailey and Martin Sandler.
Orr and Clemens were honored for their contributions to the club’s former children’s charity pro-am.
“Darren is a wonderful spokesman for us,” said CEO Thomas Southworth, “in that he represents the values that we care about and our members care about. He helps us build community everywhere he goes. He helps build connections and ties people together and creates happiness. He does that at Abaco on a weekly basis and he does that here at Willowbend when he visits and he’s done it at Creighton Farms. He’s become a dear friend and I respect him, his wife and his children.”
Southworth said he always wants the U.S. to capture the Ryder Cup, but he used to root for Clarke to win his matches.
“Hazeltine in 2016 was a difficult one for all of us,” Southworth admitted. “A lot of us went.”
Clarke is a regular on PGA Tour Champions and he held the lead entering the final round of the Ally Challenge in Michigan last Sunday before finishing seventh. Although disappointed, he shrugged it off and said he felt worse for Paul Goydos, who led by a shot before he five-putted from 35 feet, including four-putting from three feet, on the next-to-last hole.
Paul Fireman, the billionaire founder of Reebok, bought Willowbend out of bankruptcy in 1991 and spent tens of millions to improve it. In 2003, the Bay course opened, expanding Willowbend to 27 holes. The other two nines are the challenging Bog, which is built around cranberry bogs, and the Bend, which has tight fairways. Each nine plays to a par of 35.
In 2012, Fireman sold Willowbend to David Southworth, who had been Willowbend’s CEO from 1992-2005. Fireman remains a member of the club. Tommy Southworth, David’s son, became president of Southworth in 2019.
Willowbend also features a fitness center, pickleball courts, pool and fine dining.
Willowbend is a private club with 550 memberships encompassing about 1,500 people, according to assistant general manager and director of membership, Mike Vidal. The club has also opened its doors to some of the best golfers of the state, members or not.
On Sept. 18-20, Willowbend will host the Mass. Mid-Amateur for golfers aged 25 and older. They will play the Bay and Bog courses.
The club hosted the Mass. Father-Son in 2014 and the Mass. Senior Amateur in 2020 and is scheduled to host the Mass. Open in 2024 and the Mass. Amateur in 2027.
On the web: WillowbendCapeCod.com