Tim Clark may be uncertain about many things at the moment. He may be uncertain about how his injured back will heal. He may be uncertain about whether his injury days are over. But one thing he has absolutely no doubt about. His drive to win is the strongest it’s ever been, and he will do whatever it takes to make that happen again.
Speaking from his home in Phoenix after dropping his kids off at school, Clark has progressed to having physio for a back injury that surfaced in Hawaii at the start of this year.
‘I’ve got a bone spur in my back that’s fractured. It’s causing discomfort and spasms. So for the past two months I’ve just been resting and in a back brace trying to allow that bone to heal. I think it will take another couple of months before I’m able to play.’
It’s been another blow in a long line of injury setbacks since Clark claimed the biggest victory of his career in the 2010 Players Championship to still be the only South African to win there.
‘The Players was huge and my biggest win. Being my first win in the States also made it special,’ he says.
‘A win like that gave me so much confidence and I was ready to get going, and then unfortunately at the start of the next year I blew out my right elbow and it halted all that momentum I felt like I had. It was the biggest blow because I felt like there was going to be a bunch of wins to come. I actually injured it coming second in Hawaii, came home and I couldn’t even lift a glass. My arm was gone. That was a tough one.
‘I came back and it takes a while to build your game up, then I won in Canada and thought I was back to where I had been, and then the left elbow went and there was another year gone. Now it’s continued into this back thing. So when I come back I’ll essentially be two years away from playing the kind of golf I want to play. I know it’s still in there. I’ve been able to return from long periods away from the game and find my game again, and I’m confident I can do that.
‘I feel I have an even stronger desire to come back and win again because of all these injuries. Also, I’ve reached 40 and time is getting short. I look at guys like Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker who have had really good success in their mid-forties, so I’m hoping there are still a few good years in there.’
Clark is a man well used to dealing with the frustrations of injury. Even from birth, the physical limitations in his arms was never going to get in the way of his passion for golf.
‘I don’t even remember starting playing golf, that’s how young I was. I was probably two or three years old. We lived on the Umkomaas golf course so in the evenings we’d go out and play the holes until the sun set. By the age of seven I was playing 18 holes on Saturday and 18 on Sunday with my brother and dad. I only realised the limitation in my arms when I was about 11, so by that time I had my swing grooved and it wasn’t something I ever thought of.
‘I didn’t think of it as a hindrance to my game. Later on that may have been the reason that led to my elbow surgeries. Both the tendons in my arms tore. With certain things in the short game it doesn’t help. You need that rotation on some shots and I don’t have it. But then a lot of guys say I hit it so straight because I don’t have that rotation.’
The inability to rotate his forearms is what made him use the long putter for so many years. Then came the ban on anchored putting. But once again, Clark continues to find a way forward.
‘When I went to Hawaii this year I hadn’t played a round of golf in two months. I took out the other putter and finished 12th. I putted better than I had in a year and a half. To be honest I feel like the putting change won’t be a huge issue. I think I could even possibly be a better putter without the long putter, and I’m looking forward to playing and seeing where I can take it.’
For now it’s all about recovery, and enjoying some of the benefits of being a stay-at-home dad.
‘I’m driving the kids to school, meeting the other parents, taking the kids to baseball games. That’s been great. Being healthy I’d be on the road for 30 weeks of the year. I went to the Rugby Sevens in Las Vegas a few weeks ago and that was fun. In a few weeks time Johnny Clegg is playing a concert in Phoenix which I’ll get to go to. I watch a lot of Super Rugby on TV here too. Part of coming from South Africa is that it never leaves you and I have a few good South African friends in Phoenix who we often have a good braai with.’
But there is definitely this new sense of drive simmering in Clark and which makes him so excited about what the next few years hold if he can get fit.
‘The past five years, since winning The Players, I’ve had two major elbow surgeries to the left and right elbows. I was just recovering from the one on the left and started to play last year and got into a rhythm and then this happened. It’s been tough. It’s been hard to get any sort of momentum going over the past two years because of the injuries. My elbows feel great, so I just hope this one gets better and the pain goes away so I can get back out there and playing.’
Clark is still feeding off the confidence he gained from his Players victory, which ended a long period of doubt as to his ability to win on the PGA Tour.
‘There was a lot of disappointment going into that tournament. I’d had about eight or 10 second places at that point. Unfortunately there were a few tournaments I gave away and where I made mistakes, but there were a few where I just got beaten. You get to a point where you wonder if it is ever going to happen. I knew it was my short game holding me back. A better short game and I would’ve won more tournaments. With The Players it mostly came down to ball striking. It’s a course where there is so much trouble that if you keep control of the ball you’re going to be in the mix.
‘That week I had a good control over the golf ball and had one of my best weeks on the greens.
‘I’ve thought about it and why I didn’t win more early on and why I had all those second places. To be honest, I was always just playing to keep my card and make that cheque. By the time I got to The Players in 2010 that wasn’t as big of an issue. I could really concentrate on winning and I felt a lot of freedom that week.
‘I still have that mindset, so when I do get back I think there are more wins in there. Mentally I feel I know more about what it takes to win than I did earlier in my career.’
But Clark is realistic about where he can take this optimism.
‘I guess a Major and the hope of that drives you and keeps you working hard. But being injured as much as I have from 2010 to now, those are probably going to be my best years in golf – from 35-40. I feel like those years have been taken away from me. But I feel I’ve got the drive to see what I can do here in the next five to six years. I want to work a little bit harder than I did before. You only get one chance at this so I feel like I now need to give it my all.’
The man who grew up idolising Gary Player, Hugh Baiocchi, Seve Ballesteros and Ian Woosnam now says he looks to the likes of Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker as role models for this next phase in his career. Players who have been able to win in their 40s. Players who, for Clark, represent more the kind of time when a certain finesse was still required in the game.
‘I always feel like I would’ve prefer to play before the metal woods. I grew up playing with wooden clubs. The golf swing wasn’t about speed and power but more about precision and finding the clubface. I’m never going to be able to catch up with the players of today. But wooden woods, a balata ball where you could curve the ball and make shots, and a time when not everybody had a coach, which I’ve never had, may have suited me better. I just think if I could go back to the 60s, 70s, 80s I may have won a few more times. I think the game’s a lot more exciting now, but I feel like the art of the game, particularly in driving the golf ball, has been lost. Back in the day top players were hitting duck hooks off the tee that were going 200 yards if they didn’t catch it out the middle of the club. That just won’t happen now days. A part of me wishes we could go back a little bit.”
And then he laughs as he adds, “Since they changed the putter, why couldn’t they change the driver as well?’
But anything is possible in this game, and Clark knows it.
In 2014 he arrived in Shanghai for the WGC-HSBC Champions at Sheshan International. The course measured 7 261 yards.
‘It was the longest course we’d ever played on tour. I didn’t even bother playing a practice round because I figured I’ve got not chance here. I got to the first hole [a par four] and hit a driver and 3-wood short of the green.’
At the end of the week, Clark lost in a playoff with Bubba Watson.
‘You just never know in this game.’
END OF YEAR RANKINGS
(as at 12 April)
2002 South African Open
2005 South African Open, Barclays Scottish Open
2010 Players Championship
2014 RBC Canadian Open
BEST IN MAJORS
2003 The PGA Championship (3rd)
2005 US Open (3rd)
2006 The Masters (2nd)
By Michael Vlismas