Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 21, 2011

Unlikely But Deserving, Darren Clarke Wins The Open

On the windswept links at Royal St. George’s last Sunday, a Northern Irishman won the 2011 Open Championship. This was an outcome that had been forecast by many pundits in the run-up to this year’s third major. Yet the identity of the man at the top of the final leaderboard was a stunning surprise. For it was Rory McIlroy, the runaway winner at last month’s U.S. Open, who was the pre-tournament favorite. If one were pressed to name a possible winner other than McIlroy from the land of 1.7 million, the obvious second choice would have been Graeme McDowell, the winner of last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

But while the 22-year old McIlroy managed to stay on the first page of the leaderboard through the Open’s first two rounds by playing level par, he faded with rounds of 74-73 on the weekend. As for the 31-year old McDowell, he suffered an even more humbling fate. After opening strongly with a 2-under 68 to lay just three off the first round lead, he skied to a 77 on Friday and missed the cut by two strokes.

Instead of either Wee Mac or Big Mac it was their predecessor and mentor, 42-year old Darren Clarke who lifted the Claret Jug on St. George’s 18th green. At pre-tournament odds of 175-1, Clarke was a highly unlikely but in the end utterly deserving champion of a tournament that was filled with surprising results.

There was the unexpected identity of at least one of the two second place finishers. Phil Mickelson has four majors and thirty-nine PGA Tour victories, but his record at the Open has been abysmal. His aerial game and preference for speedy greens has never seemed suited to the typical Open conditions of howling winds and slower putting surfaces. But there was Phil charging through the front nine on Sunday, at one point pulling even with Clarke, before falling back over the final holes to finish tied for second with Dustin Johnson, three back of the winner. Still it was only his second top ten and his best finish ever at the Open.

If Mickelson contending was a surprise, then the roll call of players going home after Friday’s second round was shocking. The hopes of England for a truly local champion were dashed when both world number one Luke Donald and world number two Lee Westwood were unable to negotiate two trips round the St. George’s links at plus-3 or better. They were joined on the weekend sidelines by the likes of three-time major winners Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els, as well as 2010 PGA Tour money leader Matt Kuchar, in addition to McDowell.

There was also ageless Tom Watson, firing a 4 iron into the wind at the par-3 sixth hole on Friday, the ball finding the bottom of the cup on its first bounce for an ace. There was, in fact, the success of American golfers generally. After all the recent bemoaning of international dominance at the majors, five of the seven players to finish the Open at even par or better were Americans.

But every major championship is ultimately about the winner, and in the end this Open was all about Darren Clarke. It’s been more than two decades since Clarke turned pro in 1990. Three years later he won his first European Tour event, the 1993 Belgian Open. He continued to do well in Europe, winning four more times through the remainder of the decade and finishing as high as second on the Tour’s money list. He gained broader recognition early in the 2000 season when he won the Match Play Championship, one of the four annual World Golf Championship (WGC) events. In the single elimination event among the top sixty-four golfers in the world, Clarke defeated the likes of Paul Azinger, Mark O’Meara, and David Duval in route to the finals. Waiting for him there was none other than Tiger Woods. Then just 24-years old, Woods had already won two majors and twice been named the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year. Having won three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles from 1994-96 Woods was a match play veteran. But on that February Sunday in Arizona Clarke took the measure of the heavily favored Woods, defeating him 4&3.

The Match Play victory raised both Clarke’s profile and his game. Over the next three years he added more victories on the European tour, two more second place finishes on the money list, frequent placing in the top ten of the Official World Golf Rankings, and a second WGC championship when he won the 2003 NEC Invitational at venerable Firestone Country Club.

But even as his golfing career blossomed, Clarke was learning the bitter lesson that much in life is beyond one’s control. Clarke and his wife Heather had met in Portrush, and they married in 1996. Heather gave birth to sons Tyrone in 1998 and Conor in 2001, and the family relocated to the London suburbs. But not long after Conor’s birth Heather Clarke was diagnosed with breast cancer. Three years later she learned that the cancer had spread.

Clarke missed stretches of both the 2005 and 2006 seasons to care for his wife, but ultimately there was nothing that he or the doctors could do. Heather Clarke succumbed to her disease in August 2006, one day before her husband’s 38th birthday, leaving Clarke a young single father.

Six weeks later, fulfilling one of his late wife’s final wishes, Clarke played as a captain’s pick in the 2006 Ryder Cup. In the course of an emotional weekend, he contributed three points in as many matches to the winning European effort. But the loss of his wife left Clarke adrift, and 2007 was the worst year of his career.

Eventually he moved his boys back to the familiar settings of Portrush, where over time he began to rebuild both his life and his golf game. He returned to the winner’s circle, twice in 2008 and again this past May. He met Alison Campbell, a former Miss Northern Ireland on a blind date arranged by McDowell. Late last year the two announced their engagement. Yet in his twentieth Open and as no better than a distant third choice just among Northern Irishmen in the field, it seemed likely that Darren Clarke’s legacy at the majors was one of never having been quite good enough.

His once sandy hair is mostly gray now, and he has known both life’s exuberant highs and its excruciating and despondent lows. Through it all he has somehow managed to keep going. Perhaps that tenacity is what served Clarke best at Royal St. George’s. Through ever-changing conditions, as gentle breezes and scudding clouds gave way to howling gusts and heavy rain, and then back again, for four days on a demanding links, Darren Clarke just kept going. In the end, that was more than good enough to earn him golf’s oldest sobriquet, Champion Golfer of the Year.

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