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Darren Clarke, Japan women illustrate sports’ redemptive powers

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At a time when just about every sports happening is inflated into the single most important event of our time, the rare moments that truly do matter can easily slip past us.

Sunday was one of those days. Two remarkable events took place within hours of one another, the kind that remind us there is more to sports than selling ad space on caps and shirts and scoreboards.

Darren Clarke is a man who has endured genuine personal tragedy. Japan is a country that has been through one horror after another in recent months and is still reeling from the natural disasters that have rocked it to the core.

There is nothing that can happen to bring back Clarke’s wife Heather, who died from breast cancer five years ago, leaving him to raise their two sons who were 7 and 5 at the time. There is certainly nothing that can wipe away the death and the suffering caused in Japan by the earthquake and the tsunami that ripped through the country earlier this year.

But Sunday gave those touched by the tragedies a moment to smile and to believe that life can be redemptive.

Clarke’s victory in the British Open, 10 years after he last seriously contended in a major championship, was uplifting not only to him and his family and Northern Ireland, but to everyone in the game of golf.

Few players in golf are better-liked than Clarke. He has always been outgoing and funny and self-deprecating. He was always considered a major talent. He led the British Open for three rounds in 1997, and three years later, he easily beat Tiger Woods in the World Match Play final. While he won often around the world, he could never quite get to the finish line in a major.

He was, however, a Ryder Cup stalwart for Europe. Six weeks after Heather’s death in 2006, encouraged by friends and family to play, he won all three matches he played for Ian Woosnam’s team. The memory of the entire European team crowding around Clarke while he wept on Woosnam’s shoulder after his singles victory still lingers.

But the days when Clarke was a factor on the world stage appeared to have come and gone. At 42, he had become the respected elder, a mentor to younger Ulsterman such as 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and this year’s Open champion Rory McIlroy. Even though Clarke won a tournament in Europe a few weeks ago, it had been 10 years since he had finished in the top 10 in a major.

Somehow, it all came together at Royal St. George’s. Whatever it was — his superb ball-striking in difficult conditions; the inability of Phil Mickelson or Dustin Johnson to make a run at him on the back nine on Sunday or that shot that ran between two bunkers on the ninth hole Sunday — something happened to Clarke and to the British Open and to golf, and it was all good.

How Clarke held his emotions together making that last walk up the 18th fairway is anybody’s guess.

Chances are good that once he had a quiet moment to himself, he shed a few tears thinking about Heather.

“I’m sure if she were here,” he said, “she’d be telling me, ‘I told you so.’ ”

The British Open award ceremony — “prize-giving,” as it is called over there — is the shortest and sweetest in golf. The winner is introduced as “the champion golfer of the year,” words any golfer dreams of hearing, especially one from the British Isles.

And yet as wonderful as it was Sunday, the moment that gave you chills came when Mickelson, waiting to receive a runner-up award for the umpteenth time in his career, walked over to Clarke and whispered a few words in his ear. Two years ago, when Mickelson’s wife Amy had cancer diagnosed, one of the first calls he received was from Clarke. Amy is doing better now, her cancer in remission, but Mickelson clearly hadn’t forgotten Clarke’s gesture.

All of that said, Japan’s victory in the Women’s World Cup final wasn’t about redemption for one man but about finding a moment of joy and escape for a country still in mourning. This was a huge upset. For all the attempts by the American media to somehow cast the American women as a modern-day Miracle on Ice, the fact is they were the top-ranked team in the world entering the tournament and heavy favorites in the final, especially against a country it had never lost to (22-0-3).

The United States was supposed to win. It had the lead twice and it couldn’t hold on, perhaps because the Japanese were playing for more than a trophy. American star Abby Wambach, who was nothing less than brilliant throughout the tournament, had talked about wanting to hold the trophy. There was far more at stake than that for the Japanese.

There’s no doubt that deciding a world championship by penalty kicks is ludicrous. There’s also no excuse for it, especially in a final. Who cares how long it takes to decide the issue? No one has to play another important game for months once the championship has been decided.

That said, the Japanese are at least as deserving of their championship as the American women were in 1999, when they won on penalty kicks after playing to a 0-0 tie after 120 minutes of stultifying soccer with China. This game was filled with chances and actual goals, and Japan’s refusal to give up was inspiring.

For Japan, Sunday’s victory was far more important than the notion of launching a successful pro league or ESPN getting good ratings. It was about that moment when Saki Kumagai’s final penalty kick hit the back of the net and thousands upon thousands of Japanese completely forgot the past few months to celebrate and hug one another and share sheer joy — something not seen around Japan very often in 2011.

At its very best, sports gives us those moments when we feel absolute joy for deserving winners. They cry; we cry. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel the disappointment of the losers; it means we understand that sometimes winning is about more than a check or a future endorsement or a trophy.

Sunday was one of those days.

For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com

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