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Ryder Cup 2016: Lee Westwood ready to fight for captain Darren Clarke

Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood

Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood made their Ryder Cup debuts together in 1997

The first time Lee Westwood laid eyes on Darren Clarke, he knew he was a man he could do business with. And what glorious business they would do together in the years that followed.

“I was playing in the British Amateur at Royal Portrush in 1993,” Westwood tells BBC Sport, “and Darren came wandering into the clubhouse with a brand new Titleist waterproof suit on, highlights in his curly mullet and this deep, golden tan.

“I thought to myself: ‘How flash is he? I want to do what he’s doing.'”

Twenty-three years later and Westwood will be captain Clarke’s most trusted on-course lieutenant at the Ryder Cup, which tees off in Minneapolis on Friday. In between, Westwood and Clarke became the firmest of friends, biennial slayers of American legends and the very essence of European hegemony.

In five Ryder Cups between 1997, when both men made their debuts, and 2006, Westwood and Clarke played eight matches together and won six, including three occasions when their victims were ranked one and two in the world.

Their defeat of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at Oakland Hills in 2004 was just one battle that seemed to symbolise why Europe kept on winning the wars: Westwood and Clarke went hand in glove, while Woods and Mickelson formed sport’s most unlikely alliance until Kim Jong-un and Dennis Rodman.

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“We had a special bond and we got on well, which is important,” says the Englishman, who is playing in his 10th Ryder Cup, one shy of record-holder Sir Nick Faldo.

“Darren liked playing the Americans in their own backyard and being up against it and welcomed the rowdy atmosphere you get over there.

“We were surprised Tiger and Mickelson were paired together because there were murmurs they didn’t get on. But they got three up quite early and we had to claw our way back and won on the last.

“That was one of the best matches I’ve played, not only because we won but because it was a big lift for the team.

“Then there was our match against Woods and David Duval in 1999. It also went down to the last hole, it was getting dark and I hit a chip stone dead, which meant I didn’t have a knee-knocker to win it.

“Ryder Cup weeks are special. There will be a lot to recall when we’re old men sat in front of a fire together.”

Their first captain being Seve Ballesteros, Westwood and Clarke got what the Ryder Cup meant immediately. Abiding images are of Seve careering down the fairways of Valderrama in his buggy or, having dismounted, surveying the battlefield from a hill. It brought to mind one of those old paintings of Napoleon – you half expected him to hoist the European standard and pull out a telescope.

“Seve liked to get involved and he was a bit too intense for some of the players,” says Westwood.

“He was showing everyone how to play their shots and people like Colin Montgomerie and Ian Woosnam, who had played a fair few Ryder Cups themselves, just wanted to do their own thing.

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Europe fired up for Ryder Cup defence – Clarke

“But it was great for me because he was an idol of mine, so I hung on every word he said. The whole week was surreal. I was surrounded by all these great players I grew up watching on TV – Seve, Bernhard Langer, Jose Maria Olazabal – and I was partnered with Nick Faldo for four matches.

“But playing with Nick was more reassuring than intimidating. When I looked across the first tee on the first morning, there was a six-time major winner and 10-time Ryder Cupper standing there, wearing the same jumper as me.

“I was pretty sure he knew what he was doing, and I had earned my place in the team.”

That was Faldo’s last Ryder Cup and he finished it as the highest points scorer in history, on either team. Westwood needs two and a half points at Hazeltine to surpass him, while a fourth straight victory for Europe would make the 43-year-old the player to have appeared in most winning teams, eight overall.

Having endured a lean spell by his standards, Westwood had to rely on a captain’s pick to make the team, as he did in 2014. Old mates they might be, but when he picked up the phone and heard Clarke on the other end, there was some trepidation.

“I was playing golf at Close House, going up the 15th in a buggy, and my phone started buzzing,” says Westwood, who hasn’t won a tournament in 2016 but finished second at the Masters and found some decent form late in the season.

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Can Darren Clarke follow in the footsteps of his three predecessors? Colin Montgomerie (2010), Jose Maria Olazabal (2012) and Paul McGinley (2014) have made it a hat-trick of wins for Europe

“I had a good idea I was being considered for one of the picks but it was a relief to get that official phone call. And there’s still the same buzz as when I made my debut. Maybe even a little bit more, because I know what to expect.”

What to expect is a phoney war followed by the real thing, attended by wildly partisan crowds and American players, desperately wanting to win as a tribute to the recently departed Arnold Palmer, going berserk after every holed putt.

Westwood – and Clarke – wouldn’t want it any other way. “Hopefully it will be exactly like that, because we love it,” says Westwood.

Westwood believes captain Clarke will be as cool with a clipboard in his hands as he was with a five iron and that his previous vice-captaincy experience (Clarke fulfilled the role in 2010 and 2012) will stand him in good stead.

“He’s always been pretty serious about the Ryder Cup,” says Westwood. “He’s a stickler for detail who leaves nothing to chance. And he’s intense. It’s all or nothing with Darren but he’s good at controlling himself in pressure situations. And he’s a good motivator and commands respect simply because of his record.”

Westwood is withering at the suggestion that the role of captain is overplayed.

“Whoever says the captain doesn’t matter has obviously never played in a Ryder Cup and doesn’t know what they are talking about,” he says.

“I do think a captain can make a difference, although they can make more of a difference by getting things wrong than getting things right.”

You sense Clarke got things right by picking Westwood. And having done the business together again, Westwood might take a look at his old mate and think to himself: “I want to do what he’s doing.” Just like way back when.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/golf/37487630