Two Northern Irishmen were out together at 7am on Wednesday, re-enacting a practice round that 10 years ago proved to be a launch pad for one of them.
The conversation flowed and so did the wisecracks as Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy followed the same routine which, a decade earlier, preceded the former winning The Open at Sandwich.
Clarke will not be winning the title this year, but his younger partner might hope some kind of history repeats itself as he seeks to end his relative drought at the majors.
Darren Clarke has backed Rory McIlroy to add ‘many more’ majors to his current collection
The older champion, now 52, was inevitably quizzed about when McIlroy, 32, might win again, although it was the third man in their group who really knows his stuff about ending lean runs.
That was Richard Bland, the quiet Englishman who in May won his maiden title on the European Tour at the British Masters — on his 478th start.
Yet, when it comes to winning the biggest events, Clarke is the more qualified to speak. Unsurprisingly, he has faith in his fellow Ulsterman.
‘It’s been a while since he’s won one (US PGA, 2014), but Rory’s unquestionably got the talent to win many more of them,’ said the last champion at Royal St George’s.
The Northern Irishman is in a rut having failed to win a major title since the US PGA in 2014
A tweak to his swing has seen McIlroy’s form drop heading into The Open at Sandwich
‘It’s just a case of things kicking into place for him. I know he’s working diligently and doing a lot of work with Pete (Cowen, his coach) to try to hit the ball the way he wants to. This week there’s going to be a premium on keeping it on the fairways. That long stuff is really long and thick this week. We’ll see.
‘He’s working really hard. He hit some great shots today, hit a couple of ones maybe he didn’t want to hit but there’s no questioning his talent. I have been frustrated most of my career. If I was him, with his amount of talent, hell yeah I’d be frustrated with not winning tournaments.’
Clarke cuts a different figure these days to the one who triumphed in the rain 10 years ago.
He has a white beard which looks almost luminous in contrast to his deeply tanned skin, the legacy of years spent based in the Bahamas.
However, McIlroy appeared in good mood with his fellow countryman on Wednesday
Now playing on the US Seniors Tour, this is his first visit to the UK since November 2019, so there were friends to catch up with. Giving a further historic hue to Wednesday’s round, fellow ex-Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn came bounding over to greet the pair on the 15th fairway and joined them to watch and chat on the 16th. It was exactly here in 2003 that the Dane blew his lead — his best chance of winning The Open — by taking three to get out of the bunker.
Clarke and Bjorn, 50, with their substantial frames, gave each other a big hug, like two very well-nourished bears. Reflecting on his win of 10 years ago, Clarke talked of the role that renowned golf sports psychologist Dr Bob Rotella played. It happens that McIlroy is working with the same guru in 2021.
‘I spent a bit of time with Dr Bob on the putting green on the Wednesday prior to the 2011 tournament and he cleared my head because if things aren’t quite going well I tend to go back into technique and that’s not always the solution to scoring. I found a little bit of rhythm and a bit of feel with my putting stroke and all of a sudden it became a much easier game again.
‘My whole attitude that week changed when I thought I could hole a couple of putts. I was very relaxed. I didn’t look at the leaderboard on the Sunday until I walked off the 16th green, which was a nice thing to look at when you’ve got a four-shot lead.
Clarke, who won The Open in 2011, says that things will kick into place for his Ulster pal
‘My whole mindset was very accepting because on this golf course you can hit really good shots but because of the undulation here — maybe a little bit more if it’s firm and fast — you can get some funky bounces.
‘I would be a little bit ahead of myself if I was to try to give Rory advice. Any stuff that I would probably be saying to him would be coming from Bob Rotella as well.’
Clarke was also synonymous with the Ryder Cup, captaining Europe in the defeat by USA at Hazeltine in 2016. Like everyone else, he is fascinated by the antagonism between Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau.
‘If they were to keep this little thing going, that would possibly be very positive for the European team,’ he said. ‘But I’m sure USA captain Steve Stricker will ask them to leave whatever the differences are outside the team room come the Monday when they all get together.
‘And if they want to pick it up again on the Monday when they leave then c’est la vie.’