Masters 2015: Darren Clarke eases pressure on Rory McIlroy
Darren Clarke sought to ease the pressure on Rory McIlroy in his first meaningful act as captain of the European Ryder Cup team.
McIlroy's bid to complete the career grand slam by winning next month's Masters is currently golf's main plot-line.
It was an inevitable talking point as Clarke gave his first interviews since his recent appointment as skipper. Europe's leader has known his fellow Ulsterman since his schoolboy days and firmly believes McIlroy will complete a full set of major victories.
But as the world number one continues his preparations for the one grand slam title to elude him, Clarke tried to ease the burden of expectation on his 25-year-old compatriot.
"In a couple of week's time he's obviously going for the career grand slam and I think if he doesn't win it this time, he'll win it next time," Clarke told BBC Sport.
"And if he doesn't win it then, he'll win it the time after that. His game is ideally suited to Augusta, a high soft draw and as we've all seen he's got every shot in the bag.
"So there's no reason why he's not going to win there, sooner rather than later."
Clarke's message was astute. He was making the point that a historic Masters victory does not necessarily have to come at this year's tournament.
Time is on McIlroy's side, but Paul McGinley's successor as European captain accepts that the current buzz generated by the Open and PGA Champion's attempt to win three majors in a row is great for golf.
"Without a doubt," Clarke agreed.
"He's so much more comfortable in being world number one this time around than he was the last time.
|Career grand slam winners|
|Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have both won all four majors at least three times, while Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen have won them all at least once since the Masters started in 1934.|
|Bobby Jones, who co-founded the Masters, is the only man to win the Grand Slam of all four majors in the same year. He did so in 1930 when the Grand Slam was made up of the US Open, US Amateur, Open and British Amateur.|
"He's a good role model, he works hard, practices hard, he does everything right. I just hope to see him go on from strength to strength.
"He's just a talented kid. He was always destined to be where he is at the moment. He's got it all; he had it all from a young age."
As McIlroy continues a journey that is making him the heir apparent to Tiger Woods' pre-eminent status in the game, Clarke is hoping that the former number one can still return to winning ways.
Woods is currently on an indefinite break and doubts continue to grow over whether he will tee off at the Masters in three weeks. The odds must also be lengthening on Woods being part of the American side that will face Europe in 2016.
"That's an interesting one," Clarke admitted. "I for one hope that he is part of their team because he's a very old friend of mine.
"I've seen Tiger at his absolute best and it would be great to see him get back up to his best again or somewhere near it.
"Any event with Tiger in it is that bit more special than when he's not there."
And Clarke diplomatically suggests that Woods is capable of a successful comeback despite currently languishing at 96 in the world rankings.
"If anyone can, he can," Clarke stated. "He's that good. He's gone through a tough time. He tried to change his golf swing because of his mechanics in his body through the injuries.
"It's not always that easy to adapt that quickly. But a fit Tiger Woods, people will still want to see him play."
|Previous Green Jacket winners|
|Tiger Woods (1997, 2001, 2002, 2005)||Phil Mickelson (2004, 2006, 2010)|
|Angel Cabrera (2009)||Charl Schwartzel (2011)|
|Adam Scott (2013)||Bubba Watson (2012, 2014)|
Since being appointed skipper, Clarke has spent a month in South Africa and then a week at home in Northern Ireland with his two sons.
Resplendent in his Ryder Cup suit he regarded this meeting with the media as his first day in his new job. The 46-year-old from Dungannon was speaking 554 days ahead of the Hazeltine contest when Europe will attempt a record fourth consecutive victory.
Clarke is thrilled to have the role and the fact that he is up against US skipper Davis Love III is an added bonus.
The two men have been practice partners for many years, although Clarke admits their friendship "might be slightly parked for three days" come the autumn of 2016.
They played against each other in the singles of the 2004 contest at Oakland Hills when Europe posted a record-breaking 18 1/2 - 9 1/2 victory. Clarke and Love shared a half on the final day and then sparked up convivial cigars as they watched the remaining matches together.
There was a striking sense of comradeship between the two opponents. "We've played a lot of golf together and he's a wonderful man," Clarke said.
"In fact just prior to having that cigar on the eighteenth hole, we were playing the last all square and I'd hit my drive up the fairway and he'd pulled his into the rough down the left.
"His ball wasn't too far from a sprinkler head and if he'd moved his foot maybe five inches further he would have been standing on it and entitled to a drop.
"But Davis, being the gentleman that he is, didn't want to push the rules and played it out of the heavy rough. That sums up the man; he's a man of honesty and integrity and he's a very good friend."
Love was skipper when the Americans surrendered a 10-4 advantage at Medinah in 2012 and Clarke is in no doubt how motivated the US will be when the Hazeltine contest comes around.
"He will be desperate to win due to obviously what happened at Medinah and hopefully the European team will prevent that from happening.
"So it will be a very interesting three days and I couldn't possibly have asked for a better opposing captain."
Clarke spent last weekend glued to the astonishing climax to the Six Nations rugby and was delighted with the fact that Ireland eventually prevailed to retain the title.
Now, though, his sights are set on his own bid at trophy retention.
He's also hoping that Irish spirits might be further boosted by a certain Rory McIlroy at Augusta, even though he insists that green jacket does not have to be won this year.