Uncover Abundant Learning Opportunities in Willowbend Through Play with Former Ryder Cup Captain Darren Clarke

Former Ryder Cup player and captain Darren Clarke poses by his cart and golf bag during a recent round of golf at Willowbend in Mashpee.

Former Ryder Cup player and captain Darren Clarke has never played Worcester Country Club, home of the first Ryder Cup in 1927, but he does know a member of the prestigious club ‒ Fran Quinn.

The two have grown to know each other from playing on PGA Tour Champions.

Quinn and Clarke both teed off in the Ally Challenge in Grand Blanc, Michigan, the final weekend of August.

More: ‘He heals up pretty good’: Despite injuries, near misses, there’s no quit in Holden’s Fran Quinn

They also bumped into each other at the airport afterward.

“I love the guy,” Clarke said. “Fran’s a good guy. Nice man. He’s a helluva player.”

“He’s loved,” Quinn said. “He’s a fantastic guy. He’s a lot of fun. Obviously, a great player, but what people don’t realize is how hard he works. He works as hard as anybody on his game. He’s one of the first guys out on the (practice) tee. He’s got his TrackMan set up and he and his caddie just crank through numbers. He really puts forth an effort and there’s a good reason he’s successful – he earns it.”

Clarke feels so highly of Quinn, he invited him the past two years to play the JCB Championship, an event he hosts on the Legends Tour, formerly the European Senior Tour, outside of Manchester, England.

Quinn had to pull out last year after tearing a tendon in his right ankle during the British Senior Open, but he finished in a tie for 36th in early August.

This summer, Clarke played at Concord CC with a member of the Abaco Club – which Clarke represents in the Bahamas – and someone mentioned that Worcester CC hosted the first Ryder Cup.

“I’m not a historian,” he said, “but I’ve played enough Ryder Cups and I know a lot about the Ryder Cups.”

The Willowbend clubhouse.

The Willowbend clubhouse.

Clarke, 55, of Northern Ireland, played for Europe on five Ryder Cup teams, served as vice captain twice and captained the 2016 European team in Hazeltine National GC in Minnesota. So playing Worcester CC would be a thrill.

“I’d love to,” he said, “but I’m so busy.”

“I would have loved to have him up at Worcester, but we’re doing the renovations right now,” Quinn said.

Clarke spends most of his spare time in the Bahamas, but he was on hand at Willowbend in Mashpee on Aug. 30 when he was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame. The day before the induction, I played six holes at Willowbend with him before he moved on to play with another media group.

As our foursome walked toward our carts after playing the first hole, I mentioned that someone had left a couple of clubs 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 British Open champion and 2022 British Senior Open winner laughed and said he had heard me the first time, but didn’t think they were his clubs because his caddie usually picks them up. That day, however, Clarke had forgotten that he didn’t have a caddie. He was just riding around with media members playing the course and enjoying himself.

He 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.”

The Abaco Club is one of five Southworth properties, joining Willowbend, Renaissance in Haverhill, Creighton Farms outside Washington, D.C., and Machrihanish Dunes in Scotland.

A golfer tees off at Willowbend.

A golfer tees off at Willowbend.

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.”

“Darren is a wonderful spokesman for us,” Southworth president Tommy Southworth said, “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.”

Clarke joined an esteemed group who have been inducted into Willowbend’s Hall of Fame over the years: 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.

Southworth president Tommy Southworth.

Southworth president Tommy Southworth.

Paul Fireman, the billionaire founder of Reebok, bought Willowbend out of bankruptcy in 1991 and spent tens of millions to improve it. The Bay course, which abuts the Shoestring Bay, opened in 2003, 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.

In 2012, Fireman sold Willowbend to David Southworth, who had been Willowbend’s CEO from 1992-2005. Fireman remains a member of the club. Southworth’s son, Tommy, became president of Southworth in 2019.

Clarke’s easy-going, affable 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.

“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.”

A week after the Ryder Cup the Americans loved Clarke again.

“I’ve always been fortunate,” he said. “When I played the PGA Tour and European Tour, the fans have always been kind to me, they’ve always like 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.”

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 in the state, members or not.

On Monday-Wednesday, Willowbend will host the Mass. Mid-Amateur for golfers aged 25 and older. 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.

“It’s a wonderful way to be connected to the Mass. Golf community,” Southworth said, “which runs deep and does so much good work. So we’re proud to be associated with Mass. Golf. Secondly, we’re incredibly excited to host the best players in Mass. here. It’s an accreditation for the club and we feel that this helps market ourselves as a premier golf course in the state.”

The Mass. Mid-Am golfers will play the Bay and Bog courses. The Bend was the original front nine when the course was 18 holes. The Bay’s second through eighth holes and the Bog seventh and eighth were added in 2002.

Each nine plays to a par of 35 and no two combinations of the nines play as long as 6,500 yards.

“It’s a very difficult golf course,” Southworth said. “It doesn’t look difficult on the scorecard. It’s not very long, but it’s challenging. There’s lots of hazards out there, a lot of forced carries and the greens are no joke.”

“Keep it in play,” Vidale said. “You have to be very strategic. You have to think about not just this shot, but your next shot, setting yourself up to your sweet spot on some of the par 5s that you may not be able to reach in two, making sure you lay up. Because the greens are very well protected.”

Vidal said if the weather is good, he would expect the winning score for the three rounds of the Mass. Mid-Amateur to be only a few shots under par.

“It’s going to be a real challenge,” Vidal said. “We’ve got some pretty good golfers here and very few times do they break par.”

—Contact Bill Doyle at Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @BillDoyle15

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Playing an enjoyable few holes with former Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke

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