Darren Clarke's Open win extends Northern Ireland party
Darren Clarke today became the oldest Open champion since 1967 and sparked yet another party across Northern Ireland.
Just a month after Rory McIlroy became the youngest US Open winner since 1933 and a year after Graeme McDowell's triumph in the same event, Clarke joined them in the major club with an astonishing performance at Sandwich.
The 42-year-old, 111th in the world and viewed more as a mentor for his 22-year-old compatriot McIlroy than a contender when they practised together last Wednesday, lifted the Claret Jug at his 20th attempt.
He did so by three shots from Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, extending America's record barren spell in the four majors to six going back to Mickelson's victory in last year's Masters.
"It's incredible - it really is," said Clarke, becoming emotional when mention was made of his two sons, left motherless in 2006 when his wife Heather died of breast cancer.
"It's for the kids," he added.
Nobody has ever waited so long and then won The Open, yet with a closing 70 in more wind and rain Clarke finished his 54th major with a five-under-par total of 275.
The former Ryder Cup star - hero of the 2006 victory six weeks after he lost his wife - could even enjoy the walk up the final fairway knowing the job was done.
He had just dropped a shot on the 17th and could even afford to three-putt the last for another bogey.
With that Clarke, with his two sons at home in Portrush, punched the air repeatedly, took his cap off and waved it to all parts and hugged caddie John Mulrooney.
Dane Thomas Bjorn, fourth this time, failed to hang on to a three-shot lead with four to play on the course in 2003, but Clarke never looked like tossing away a four-shot lead handed to him when Johnson went out of bounds on the 14th and Mickelson ran up four bogeys in six holes.
"I'm a bit speechless," Clarke stated. "The last couple of holes I was trying not to make stupid mistakes and just play really careful."
Mickelson, who like Clarke made his debut in 1991, had earlier charged into the joint lead by playing the first seven in an incredible five under par, but he came home in 38 and had to settle for improving his previous best Open finish of third at Troon seven years ago.
Only two players have ever won their first major when older than Clarke - 45-year-old Jerry Barber at the 1961 US PGA and 44-year-old Roberto De Vicenzo at the 1967 Open.
And in The Open alone only three champions have been older than Clarke - De Vicenzo, Harry Vardon and Old Tom Morris.
Not that he was the lowest-ranked player to triumph at Royal St George's, however. Ben Curtis was 396th eight years ago.
Clarke had the vital initial boost of a 15-foot par putt on the first, then went two ahead with a five-footer on the next and three in front when he saved par on the difficult short third from nine feet and Johnson missed from six.
A drive into rough on the fourth - the hardest hole on the course all week - led to his first bogey of the day, but he could never have expected that as he parred the next he would be caught by Mickelson.
Plenty had birdied the second, but when he added another from 14 feet for only the second one all weekend on the fourth the charge was on.
Mickelson went to three under for the day by finding the target from almost 30 feet on the short sixth, then hit his second to 25 feet at the 564-yard next and eagled it to go joint top.
The weather was starting to turn nasty at that stage, but Clarke has often prospered in such conditions in the past and he did again when he answered Mickelson's eagle with one of his own from slightly shorter range.
Two in front again as a result, he stayed there with a real "luck of the Irish" moment at the 412-yard ninth when his low recovery from the left rough skipped over a bunker and found the green.
His par there took him to the turn in 33, brilliant in its own right but outshone by Mickelson's remarkable best-of-the-week 30 - and that he had missed 10-foot chances at the eighth and ninth.
There was one between them when the American made an 18-footer on the next, but he missed a three-foot par attempt on the next, a six-footer at the 13th, had another bogey after driving into sand two holes later and three-putted the 16th.
Johnson was four back at the turn, birdied the 10th and 12th to move into second place, but then hit his second shot out of bounds down the long 14th - the hole where Swede Henrik Stenson had taken 11 earlier in the day.
His double bogey seven gave Clarke an even bigger cushion than Bjorn had had in 2003. Bjorn could not complete the task, but Clarke did - and let the party begin.
He had just become £900,000 richer and at a stroke - or rather 275 of them - had moved back into the game's top 30.
DARREN CLARKE FACTFILE
1968: Born Dungannon, Northern Ireland, August 14
1990: Becomes Spanish amateur champion and Irish amateur champion before turning professional
1992: Scores a European Tour record-equalling round of 60 in Monte Carlo.
1993: Claims his first European Tour win at the Alfred Dunhill Open. Goes on to finish eighth on the Order of Merit.
1996: Secures his second Tour victory at the German Masters and again finishes eighth on the Order of Merit.
1997: Runner-up at the Open to Justin Leonard, but goes on to make his Ryder Cup debut and end the year fourth on the Order of Merit.
1998: European Tour victories at the Benson & Hedges International Open and the Volvo Masters help him finish second on the Order of Merit.
1999: Completes another round of 60 this time at the K Club. Later in the year he wins the English Open and goes on to make his second Ryder Cup appearance.
2000: Beats Tiger Woods in the final of WGC-Accenture Match Play and then retains his English Open title in June.
2001: Finishes third in the Open Championship, but lifts titles in South Africa, Ireland and Japan
2002: Wins his third English Open title and makes his third Ryder Cup appearance.
2003: Wins WGC-NEC Invitational in Akron and finishes runner-up on the Order of Merit.
2004: A fourth Ryder Cup appearance is followed by a second career title in Japan at the Taiheiyo Masters.
2005: Successfully defends his Taiheiyo Masters crown.
2006: Makes an emotional fifth appearance at the Ryder Cup, just six weeks after his wife Heather dies of breast cancer. Clarke won all three of his games at the K Club to help Europe claim victory.
2008: Ends almost five years without a European Tour win by lifting the KLM Open title.
2010: Named non-playing Ryder Cup vice-captain for Europe's victorious campaign.
2011: July 17 - Wins The Open Championship at Royal St George's at the 20th attempt.
Irish eyes are smiling at the Open
By Mark Garrod
Four years ago no Irish golfer had won a major since Fred Daly in the 1947 Open.
How times have changed. Padraig Harrington won three of the next six, then Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, both from north of the border like Daly, won back-to-back US Opens and now Darren Clarke has joined them.
Here is a look back at the major triumphs:
2007 OPEN - Harrington is six behind Sergio Garcia with a round to go at Carnoustie and after charging into contention double bogeys the last.
Garcia, though, bogeys it to fall into a tie and the Dubliner birdies the first extra hole, then holds on.
"I never let myself think I had just thrown away the Open on the 18th," he said.
2008 OPEN - Harrington, doubtful beforehand because of a wrist injury, plays a brilliant back nine highlighted by an eagle on the 17th for a four-shot win over Ian Poulter at Birkdale.
He is the first European to retain the title since James Braid in 1906.
"It's a lot shinier than I remember," he says of the trophy he had handed back at the start of the week.
2008 US PGA - Garcia and Harrington go head-to-head again at Oakland Hills and the result is the same as Europe's 78-year wait for a winner of the title is ended.
Harrington birdies the 17th - Garcia was closer and then missed - and a 15-footer at the last secures victory.
"I'm actually disappointed I'm seven months away from the next major," he said.
2010 US OPEN - Tony Jacklin was the last European winner of the trophy in 1970 and with Dustin Johnson three clear at Pebble Beach after 54 holes it does not look good again.
But Johnson has an early triple and double bogey, crashes to an 82 and world number 37 McDowell holds his nerve.
"Careers are defined by major championships and my career's off and running today," he comments.
2011 US OPEN - Two months after a closing 80 when four ahead at The Masters McIlroy starts at Congressional with a 65.
From three in front he goes six clear with a 66, then eight ahead with a 68, setting 36-hole and 54-hole records.
No nightmare this time, the trophy goes straight back to Northern Ireland.
"At Augusta it was all a bit new to me. I have a clear mind now," says the 22-year-old.
2011 OPEN - English amateur Tom Lewis and 2003 Sandwich runner-up Thomas Bjorn lead after opening with 65s, but at halfway it is Clarke and American Lucas Glover out in front.
A Saturday 69, one of only three sub-70 scores in the wind and rain, leaves Clarke one ahead and at the 20th attempt he becomes Open champion.
"The Open is the biggest and best tournament in the world. Nineteen times I've failed, now I've won - it's a dream come true," he said.