Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Open glory for man of the people Darren Clarke

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)
SANDWICH, ENGLAND - JULY 17: General View of the final leaderboard at the end of the final round following Darren Clarke's victory in The 140th Open Championship at Royal St George's on July 17, 2011 in Sandwich, England. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Darren Clarke with Alison Campbell. 'Everything is fantastic at the moment,' he says

As Darren Clarke paraded the Claret Jug in front of his adoring fans on the 18th hole, two deliriously happy 30-something lads with the broadest of Ulster accents waved a Northern Ireland flag in celebration.

We should be getting used to that by now, but it still raises a smile.

Remember, before the US Open last year, our wee country only had one major champion, the mercurial Fred Daly, who won The Open in 1947.

Now we're up to FOUR with Darren following Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy into the major winners circle.

Back-to-back triumphs, three victories in the last six - Northern Ireland is without question the golfing capital of the world.

G-Mac, of course, started the ball rolling into the cup at Pebble Beach in 2010 before Rory succeeded him in Maryland in record-breaking fashion 12 months later.

And yesterday, Ulster's godfather of golf joined the party with a magical and emotional Open championship victory at Royal St George's.

The grand old tournament, in its 140th year, began with McIlroy as the big favourite - in every sense.

On the first couple of days it seemed as if Rory was playing the event on his own, such was the media hype and spectator interest in the Holywood hero. By last night, though, it was another golfing great from Northern Ireland that everyone was talking about.

From the moment Darren walked on to the course just after 2pm in black shirt and grey slacks, the cheers echoed all around Sandwich - the volume increasing with each passing hole.

Not one pace of the Kent links did the big Liverpool fan walk alone.

On every tee, fairway and green, the fans, many from his homeland, roared "Come on Darren" amid the biting wind, driving rain and occasional hint of sunshine.

And "come on", Darren, the man for all seasons, did, playing sparkling golf through the toughest of conditions on his way to the greatest triumph of his career.

Exuding calm, even when Phil Mickelson was making an extraordinary charge that was to fade on the back nine, Clarke's composure, often questioned, was just champion.

After 20 years of trying to win golf's greatest prize, this was finally Darren's day.

The day when, with his inventive shot making and a putting stroke as smooth as silk, the fun-loving big fella won The Open Championship.

This was a truly inspiring victory for a 42-year-old man, who has come through tragedy in his life and learnt to smile again.

His big beaming grin lit up the grey skies as he was handed the Claret Jug, receiving an ovation which was long, loud and richly deserved for this most popular of players.

Beside the 18th green his ever-supportive mum and dad and delightful fiancee Alison Campbell were filled with pride. Back home in Portrush Darren's sons Tyrone and Conor were watching dad on TV - this was for the boys, he said with tears in his eyes.

There was a genuine feeling amongst those cheering on the course that this was a victory for them too.

A recent golf magazine survey concluded that Clarke was the player readers would most like to partner for 18 holes.

He is a man of the people. Unlike some millionaire sporting stars, he's not detached from reality or the public. Big Darren loves a fry-up, enjoys a drink and is never afraid to light up a fag or savour a cigar. He's a bloke the punters can identify with.

And in turn he appreciates them and their support, which was so evident during the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club, when a collective arm was put around Darren, coming to terms with the death of his beloved wife Heather, who lost her battle with cancer.

He captured hearts then with his bravery and breathtaking golf that took Europe to a famous victory over the USA.

Yesterday he captured hearts all over again, not least when he eluded to Heather in his victory speech.

Leading going into the final round, Darren was there to be shot at, but was never headed by nearest challengers Mickelson or Dustin Johnson, maintaining control of his mind, his game and the tournament.

While others fell away in the woeful weather, Clarke excelled, eventually carding a highly impressive last day 70, to follow up earlier rounds of 68, 68 and 69, finishing five under par, three shots ahead.

Darren had been close in The Open twice before, but even though he was suited to links golf and blessed with incredible talent - winning World Golf Championships in 2000 and 2003 illustrated that - many felt the major ship had sailed for the man from Dungannon.

Crucially Clarke still believed.

Now he's the Open champion. Few have deserved the title more.

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