When I played Willowbend Golf Course on Cape Cod in a foursome with Darren Clarke recently, I found him a down to earth fellow. He was quick to give advice to those in his group and regaled us with tell stories about his days playing on the PGA Tour.
Clarke serves as ambassador for The Abaco Club on the island of Bermuda. The Abaco Club is one of six Southworth properties, joining Willowbend, Renaissance in Haverhill, Massachusetts, Creighton Farms outside Washington, D.C., Meredith Bay in New Hampshire and Machrihanish Dunes in Scotland.
Clarke recently 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.”
Clarke’s is popular in his home country of Northern Ireland and around the world. Golf fans in the U.S. have always rooted for Clarke, except when he played for Europe every two years in the Ryder Cup. Clarke didn’t take part in the first Ryder Cup held in Italy recently, but he played for Europe on five Ryder Cup teams, serving as vice captain twice and captain of the losing European team in 2016 at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota. Europe dominated the U.S. in this year’s Ryder Cup.
Clarke said, “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. That’s the way it should be.”
Clarke continued, “The fans have always been kind to me,” he said. “They’ve always 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.” Clarke is a regular on PGA Champions Tour.
Clarke joined 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.
“Darren is a wonderful spokesman for us,” said Willowbend CEO Thomas Southworth, “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.”
Paul Fireman, the billionaire founder of Reebok, bought Willowbend out of bankruptcy in 1991 and spent many millions of dollars to improve it. In 2003, the Bay course opened, giving Willowbend 27 holes. The other two nines are the challenging “Bog”, which is built around cranberry bogs, and the “Bend,” which has tight fairways. Each nine has a par of 35.
In 2012, Fireman sold Willowbend to David Southworth, Willowbend’s CEO from 1992-2005. Fireman remains a member of the club. Tommy Southworth, David’s son, became president of Southworth in 2019.
Willowbend also features a fitness center, pickleball courts, pool and fine dining.
Willowbend is a private club with 550 memberships and about 1,500 people, according to assistant general manager and director of membership, Mike Vidal.
The club hosted the Massachusetts Father-Son tournament in 2014 and the Massachusetts Senior Amateur in 2020 and is scheduled to host the Massachusetts Open in 2024 and the Massachusetts Amateur in 2027.
All in all it was a fun day getting to hang out with Darren Clarke and playing a great course at Willowbend.