Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Cheers and tears for Darren Clarke

SANDWICH, ENGLAND - JULY 17: Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland embraces his caddy John Mulrooney on the 18th green following his victory during the final round of The 140th Open Championship at Royal St George's on July 17, 2011 in Sandwich, England. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
SANDWICH, ENGLAND - JULY 17: Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland lifts the Claret Jug aloft following his victory at the end of the final round of The 140th Open Championship at Royal St George's on July 17, 2011 in Sandwich, England. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
Darren Clarke with Alison Campbell. 'Everything is fantastic at the moment,' he says

Never had the champion prevailed after so many attempts and never had the champion cheered so many hearts.

When Darren Clarke tapped in on the 18th last night to win the 140th Open Championship the tears flowed almost as quickly as the Guinness. The big man had done it. At last.

This was his 20th bid for the Claret Jug and, in the end, the old trophy relented.

It was Clarke's turn, his moment, his chance to look up to the sporting gods to thank them for their patronage.

After a day of squalls and downpours, they even shone the sun on the genial Ulsterman.

Quite right, too. Three shots separated him from Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson. This was a success of the very highest order, compiled with ball-striking of the very highest order. 68-69-68-70: five-under.

The achievement should not be underestimated. And neither should the determination.

Clarke had tasted the sweetest glories the Ryder Cup has to offer and won two World Golf Championships in an illustrious career.

But the major his extraordinary timing deserved had always eluded him.

Press men wrote him off, the rankings consigned him to 111th and the questions he was asked suddenly concerned Rory McIlroy's chances, not his own.

But he showed them all and in many ways he showed himself. "Darren Clarke, Open champion" - it always had a certain ring.

So Clarke became the oldest first-time major winner since Roberto de Vicenzo 44 years ago.

But the vigour with which he strode up that final fairway reminded one more of an 18-year-old starting out than a 42-year-old finishing off.

That's what dream-making can do to a man. And as Clarke waved to an ovation the rival of any in golfing folklore, back home in Ulster they set off on an all-nighter. Again.

Why don't they just move the Golfing Hall of Fame from Florida to Belfast? This was the small province's third major from six - and three different winners at that.

Incredible, really, seeing as there's only 1.5 million of them. Ulster went 206 majors of blanks and then proceeded to reel them off like a machine gun.

But still, Clarke took his place in his homeland's history. They hadn't won an Open since Fred Daly in 1947. Sixty four years of hurt.

Clarke's beaming smile was the perfect cure. He hugged his caddie, his mother and father, his fiance Alison Campbell and then finally his manager Chubby Chandler who, like Northern Ireland, is getting rather used to these celebrations.

That's three majors, three wins in 2011 and with Clarke heading to the USPGA alongside McIlroy, Charl Schwartzel and Lee Westwood, who would dare write off the 'Chubbyslam'? Yes, there were so many reasons for the ISM camp to party last night. Yet they only needed one - Clarke, one of the most popular characters in the sport, proving that he who waits longest, most certainly laughs loudest. It was a finale so fitting for the occasion as another day of high drama entered the Open annals.

Mickelson charged the electricity into the proceedings with a front nine which must be considered among the very best the Open has ever witnessed.

Three birdies and an eagle added it up to a 30, the lowest score on the front nine by two shots. Whatever putt the left-hander looked at, it dropped. This was Greg Norman in 1993 here all over again.

Indeed, but for a lipped putt on the eighth and a missed eight-footer on the ninth, Mickelson would have shot a 28, the lowest front nine in the 151 years of the Open. It was stunning stuff and sent a surge of adrenaline around the links.

Clarke's front nine wasn't shabby - indeed, anything but. He battled his putter on Saturday but yesterday he embraced it and it obliged. There were par saves and Clarke birdied the second and eagled the seventh. That was the moment, the instant when all his fantasies manifested themselves into impending reality.

Mickelson had just caught him on five-under, after Clarke had bogeyed the fourth. But Clarke rolled in a 25-footer and his hand went up.

Later on, when his ball came up an inch short at the 18th hole, the crowd sighed and Clarke turned to them and said: "It doesn't matter."

It didn't either. His glory was enshrined, the Claret Jug was his.

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