Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards: Darren Clarke our star of 2011

By Steven Beacom

Darren Clarke has suffered heartache that no man would ever want to experience.

When his beautiful wife Heather, and mother to his two charming sons Tyrone and Conor, passed away in 2006 after losing her brave battle with cancer, it must have felt like the end of the world for Darren.

Many tears were shed as this much loved golfer tried to come to terms with his tragic loss.

He had to re-build his life and virtually start again.

All over the world, especially here in Northern Ireland, people will be overjoyed to hear that five-and-a-half-years on Darren feels “incredibly fortunate” to have found happiness again.

Content to be based in Portrush with his boys and close to family and friends, he's also found love with stunning fiancee Alison Campbell, formerly a Miss Northern Ireland.

And of course there’s still a warm glow from that blustery, wet day in July when his lifelong dream of winning The Open finally came true at the 20th attempt.

Clarke was magnificent all week at Royal St George's, playing through the wind and rain, to become the second Ulsterman after Fred Daly to win the tournament.

It was a magical effort from Clarke, often accused in the past of not seeing the big job through.

Well, he got it done at Sandwich, with plenty of smiles and laughs along the way, lapped up by his adoring fans.

Darren enjoys a drink and a smoke and good food. He's someone that the public can identify with and his Open success was one of the most popular in the history of his chosen sport.

From tee to green he excelled and when he needed to make the pressure putts, he delivered. Put simply, he produced world class golf to win the biggest event of them all.

In Northern Ireland we were proud to see Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy win back-to-back US Open titles, but there was even more depth of feeling when Darren won his major title, because he's been around a lot longer, he's gone close to it in the past and of course due to all that suffering he's gone through away from the course. No wonder then that he was a hugely popular winner of the Belfast Telegraph Sports Star of the Year award for 2011 at last night's glittering ceremony in the Ramada Plaza Hotel.

Away in South Africa preparing for his first tournament of the year, Darren's prize was collected by his fiancee Alison.

Before travelling to play in the Volvo Golf Champions tournament, which begins on Thursday, Clarke spoke about his contented state of mind.

“I have been through a lot of things in my life, on and off the course, some of them good and some of them very bad,” he said.

“You learn about yourself through adversity and now Tyrone and Conor are both doing well, I've a wonderful fiancee in Alison and life couldn't be better for me living back at home.

“Sometimes you have to go through pain and come out the other side and I feel incredibly fortunate right now to be receiving awards like this one and to have the Claret Jug and be Open champion.”

On his latest prize, he stated: “I'm delighted to win the Belfast Telegraph Sports Star of the Year award. It's great to get any award, but when it comes from the people at home in Northern Ireland, that makes it even more special.

“It's been wonderful for me this past year. Having moved back home and living here permanently it's a wonderful place to be and bring up my kids and I'm really enjoying it.

“Wherever I am in Northern Ireland, so many people come up to me and say well done to me. It's great to hear.

“You don't really get that anywhere apart from at home, so to get voted the Sports Star of the Year from people here means an awful lot to me.”

After that Open victory, everyone wanted a piece of the big Dungannon man.

Over the Christmas and New Year period, when he was awarded the OBE, Darren enjoyed some quality family time and finally got the opportunity to reflect on what he achieved last summer.

He says: “It's sunk in a little more now. Obviously winning The Open is a memory I'll cherish forever.

“It's the ultimate tournament in golf. All my days growing up practicing in Dungannon and then from there going to university in America and then all the hours I've had practicing in Portrush and playing all around the world related to having that one putt to win the Open. It took me a while, but I eventually got there.”

He sure did thanks to a composed final round when he was cheered on every hole. The Liverpool fan never walked alone.

“In the last round I was able to control my nerves and get off to a decent start. I think the second putt I holed on the first green set the tone for the day. I played quite nicely and under control doing what I had to do to get over the finish line.

“It was a weird one walking up the 18th because I was trying to work out how many putts I had from the edge of the green to win. I realised I'd got enough and that I could handle it.

“It was an incredible experience because the crowd were so kind through the week. Walking up the 18th through all the support and having so many people applauding and cheering me on was very, very special.”

Clarke's golf since The Open has not been near the quality on show at Sandwich, though perhaps a downturn in form should have been expected.

Now he is ready to go again and with a new personal trainer recruited, the Irish Open being played at Royal Portrush and the majors, which will include his defence of The Open, Darren has a huge year ahead. He insists he wants to experience that winning feeling once more.

“I haven't played my best since I won at Royal St George's. I think maybe I've worked too hard to back up the Open success and that had an adverse effect on my golf at the end of last year.

“The determination and desire is still there and is as strong as it has ever been. I want to win more tournaments and the bigger the better.”

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