The significance to Clarke of that streak ending on Sunday is obvious, with September’s Ryder Cup hovering on the skyline.
Barring any unlikely success that would alter his exemption status, this will be Clarke’s last Masters as a player. The timing – stretching five years since his 2011 Open Championship victory – is opportune, as he reverts to captaining Europe’s team at Hazeltine. “I have enjoyed every minute,” he says. “I just wish I could have played better.”
But what of that bigger picture and a major recently dominated by non-Europeans? “There’s no reason for it,” the Northern Irishman said. “We have some of the best players in the world and you think back to when we had that period; Faldo was winning, Woosie, Lyle, Olly, Langer. We couldn’t stop and then I don’t know what happened. Possibly it was one inspiring the other back then but the guys are trying so hard anyway, I don’t think it’s that. There’s no real reason.
“I’d love a European to win but that’s as a European not really because of the Ryder Cup. I want to see them playing well every week. All I keep hearing is how strong the Americans are – and they are – but it’s almost to the detriment of how strong European golf is. We have world-class players on the European Tour.”
Clarke has relished Augusta discussion with Rory McIlroy, one of few players guaranteed to be on the European team. McIlroy is also regarded as an on- and off-course leader by the captain. “I had a really good chat with him, spoke about the Ryder Cup but a number of different things, including this week,” Clarke said. “Rory is happy: happy where his game’s at, happy with the way he’s swinging it. He’s been playing well without winning but I expect him to win pretty soon.
“I’ve been keeping a close eye on his stats and they’re right up there. Rory’s the type of player and character when he gets that little bit of extra spark that triggers his confidence then it’ll be: ‘Off we go.’ If and when he clicks, he wins. He’s very relaxed and in great form.”
Sir Alex Ferguson, who played a prominent role during Paul McGinley’s successful leading of Europe at Gleneagles in 2014, will be in Augusta this week for the first time. Clarke said he will try to spend time with the former Manchester United manager. “I’d be stupid not to wouldn’t I?” said Clarke. “Even though I’m a Liverpool fan, he’s a legend in terms of man-management. I’d be foolish not to.”
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