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 Northern Irishman. 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 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. Mickelson had closed to within one of Clarke, when he birdied the 10th. Clarke's front nine wasn't shabby – indeed, anything but. He battled his putter on Saturday but on this Sunday 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, and there were many already crediting America's darling with his fifth major. Clarke was not about to bow so obediently. The 25-footer rolled in and his hand went up. They were going to have to fight him to the very last breath to make him submit.
Mickelson suddenly remembered where he was and started to play the links stranger of old. He missed from no more than two and a half feet on the 11th. Those sounds you heard were the alarm bells. He is a curious cove. The bogeys arrived as quickly as the birdies had earlier. By the 18th he had thrown three of them back asSandwich revealed its teeth once more. Thomas Bjorn had hung around obstinately on the leaderboard, the Dane producing his best performance in a long while by finishing in fourth. Perhaps he can now forget about Sandwich 2003 when he chucked away a three-stroke lead with four holes remaining.
Clarke actually had a four-stroke lead with four remaining but it was not remotely possible he would collapse like Bjorn, his close friend. Instead it was Johnson who buckled. The 27-year-old had loomed up in Clarke's wing mirrors with birdies on the 10th and 12th and with the rainstorms having blessedly taken their leave from Pegwell Bay, so the momentum nudged up behind Johnson.
But then came the shank on the 14th and that was effectively that. Clarke could sympathise as when he was last in contention at an Open, Troon way back in 1997, he shanked a drive out of bounds. Johnson looked stunned as he watched the ball whistle over the white-markers on the par-five.
We saw the same stare last year, first when he shot an 82 when leading the US Open by three and then at the USPGA two months later when being hit with a controversial penalty shot on the last which cost him a place in the play-off.
In the tumult which greeted Clarke's win, Johnson's agony would inevitably be overlooked. But he is turning into the Greg Norman of his day. The hard-luck stories stack up on his CV like an habitual burglar's charge-sheet. Johnson must keep on trying, keep on dreaming, just like Clarke. A certain serenity characterised his victory walk. There was one heart-in-mouth second on the 15th when his approach seemed destined to catch the horrid cross-bunkers 80 yards in front of the green. But it consented to clear them and from there it was the procession of his imagination. A par on the 16th, an irrelevant bogey on the 17th, an even more meaningless bogey on the 18th. When his ball came up an inch short, 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.
Also at the presentation was the winner of the Silver Medal for leading amateurs, Tom Lewis. What a week it was for the 20-year-old from the same club as Sir Nick Faldo in Welwyn Garden City. He became the first amateur in 43 years to lead the Open (with a first-round 65) and although that form deserted him, Lewis hung on to beat the crack American Peter Uihlein in the "non-paid" Championship. Lewis finished at nine-over and Uihlein at 12-over.
Lewis delighted the amateur game and, in particular, the Walker Cup committee, by announcing he will not turn pro until after the match in September. He's one for the future, but last night it was all about the present and about a champion many had relegated to the past; about Darren Clarke, the player who simply refused to accept it was all over.
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.
(GB or Irl unless stated)
* 275 D Clarke 68 68 69 70
* 278 D Johnson (US) 70 68 68 72, P Mickelson (US) 70 69 71 68
* 279 T Bjorn (Den) 65 72 71 71
* 280 A Kim (US) 72 68 70 70, C Campbell (US) 69 68 74 69, R Fowler (US) 70 70 68 72
* 281 R Jacquelin (Fr) 74 67 71 69
* 282 S Garcia (Sp) 70 70 74 68, S Dyson 68 72 72 70, D Love III (US) 70 68 72 72
* 283 S Stricker (USA) 69 71 72 71, L Glover (US) 66 70 73 74, M Kaymer (Ger) 68 69 73 73
* 284 G Coetzee (SA) 69 69 72 74
* 285 Z Johnson (US) 72 68 71 74, F Jacobson (Swe) 70 70 73 72, C Schwartzel (SA) 71 67 75 72, Y E Yang (Kor) 71 69 73 72, R Green (Aus) 70 71 73 71, W Simpson (US) 66 74 72 73
* 286 T Watson (US) 72 70 72 72, T Lehman (US) 71 67 73 75, A Hansen (Den) 69 69 72 76
* 287 R McIlroy 71 69 74 73, A Scott (Aus) 69 70 73 75, M A Jimenez (Sp) 66 71 72 78
* 288 C Howell III (US) 71 70 73 74, R Moore (US) 69 74 76 69
* 289 S Cink (US) 70 71 77 71, J Day (Aus) 71 70 76 72, R Palmer (US) 68 71 72 78, S-y Noh (Kor) 69 72 75 73, G Woodland (US) 75 68 74 72, B Watson (US) 69 72 74 74, T Lewis 65 74 76 74, P Larrazabal (Sp) 68 70 76 75
* 290 S Khan 71 72 77 70, J Overton (US) 68 71 78 73, R Rock 69 71 74 76, G Boyd 71 70 76 73, T Immelman (SA) 70 72 72 76, Y Ikeda (Japan) 69 71 75 75
* 291 S Levin (US) 72 69 81 69, J Rose 72 70 79 70, K Stanley (US) 68 72 77 74, K J Choi (Kor) 71 72 75 73
* 292 J Furyk (US) 72 70 76 74, F de Vries (Neth) 70 73 76 73, G Bourdy (Fr) 73 70 77 72, P Uihlein (US) 71 71 75 75, R Allenby (Aus) 69 72 75 76, R McEvoy 69 72 75 76
* 293 R Sabbatini (SA) 71 70 77 75, P Casey 74 69 78 72, L Oosthuizen (SA) 72 70 74 77
* 294 R Barnes (US) 68 74 78 74, S Gallacher 70 71 77 76, B Haas (US) 72 70 79 73, F Andersson Hed (Swe) 68 75 77 74, G Havret (Fr) 72 71 78 73, B van Pelt (US) 73 69 73 79
* 296 J Luiten (Neth) 73 69 79 75, M Millar (Aus) 71 72 80 73, M Wilson (US) 74 68 75 79
* 297 P Lawrie 73 70 81 73, E Molinari (It) 69 74 76 78
* 298 H Stenson (Swe) 72 71 75 80
* 299 H Frazar (US) 72 70 77 80
* 301 K Ferrie 71 71 76 83
* 304 J-G Hwang (Kor) 68 74 83 79