Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Darren Clarke ends long wait for major triumph

Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke stretches before teeing off during round three of the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St George's, Sandwich

Darren Clarke raised his arms in celebration after tapping his final two-inch putt into the cup and the roar which greeted history could have launched a moon rocket.

The claret jug and a first golfing major was his at the 54th attempt at the age of 42 and in the 140 years of the Open championship it is doubtful if there has been a more popular victor than the man from Dungannon, County Tyrone.

Not old Tom Morris, nor Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. Maybe not even Britain's Tony Jacklin, nor the great Seve Ballesteros whose memory has been everywhere this past week in Sandwich.

We love Clarke because he loves a pint and a cigar and does not obsess over his fitness. We love his easy-going nature and his benevolent smile and the fact that he makes playing golf seem such a joy.

It explains why the Irishman was swept along the fairways and through the squalls which ravaged Royal St George's on a tide of goodwill, just as he was at the K Club in Ireland in 2006 when he helped Europe to win the Ryder Cup following the death of his wife.

This afternoon did not have the tears we witnessed then. Clarke is in a better place now with fiancee Alison and his life back in equilibrium.

And it showed as he held his nerve and engaged his 20 years of experience at the Open championship.

The technique, too, was sublime. Booming drives, raking long irons and clutch putts which saw him begin his round with a 16-footer to save par at the first, a 10-footer at the third and a 20-foot eagle at the seventh, after which he raised his finger to his lips to shush the crowd to silence as playing partner Dustin Johnson hovered over his own putt.

That is the measure of the man and the beauty of golf. Universal respect.

Yes, Clarke rode his luck, too, especially with one low trundler at the ninth which leapt the fairway bunker at the ninth like a thoroughbred taking Becher's Brook.

But there is not a winner in the history of the tournament who has not required a meaty slice of fortune.

In truth, however, it was Clarke's bold approach and his tenacious will which made him the oldest Open winner since Roberto di Vicenzo in 1967 and allowed him to stand firm when America's Phil Mickelson was compiling a front nine of 30 with four birdies and an eagle which was golf up there with the best the Open has ever witnessed.

Johnson might have proved a threat but his challenge faded with an aberration of a fairway iron at the 14th which sailed out of bounds and effectively left Clarke four shots clear.

The solid, composed Ulsterman was not going to lose from there, even if had been 10 years since he finished in the top 10 in a major.

Of course it was not supposed to be this way. The Irish contenders were supposed to be former US Open champion Graeme McDowell and the current US Open champion Rory McIlroy or perhaps two-times Open champion Padraig Harrington.

Clarke was barely given a mention by the experts, a 150-1 shot with the bookies before a ball was struck. Yet if the outcome was gloriously unpredictable then it mirrored four days at Sandwich which were never less than memorable.

Tom Lewis, the 20-year-old amateur, gave notice that one day he might be ready to join the rush of Englishmen currently at the top of the world game, taking the silver medal for leading amateur and garnishing it with a spectacular eagle at the seventh.

Tom Watson, the man Lewis was named after, ambled down the fairways, genial and composed even when the Sandwich weather was at its worst, demonstrating that even at 61 class remains permanent.

McIlroy visited hawthorn bushes and the deepest of rough as the muse of his US Open victory at Congressional deserted him.

Sergio Garcia briefly reminded us of his talent with one 80-odd foot putt right out of the Ballesteros textbook while fellow Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez fell away forlornly.

It was that sort of Open. No dominant force. Not until the final holes when Clarke enjoyed the luxury of a comfortable lead and the rest succumbed to the pressure and the wicked twists and bobbles of a testing course.

And when Clarke had beaten the course, the weather and everything the rest of the field could throw at him to win by three shots he wrapped his arms around the claret jug.

A sporting moment to savour. Warm and uplifting. Simply wonderful.