2011 British Open: Darren Clarke wins his first major

SANDWICH, ENGLAND — In Northern Ireland, from Portrush on the northern coast through the city of Belfast in the east and into the wee town of Holywood, they will celebrate Sunday’s events here. Yet another one of their own, 42-year-old Darren Clarke, won the British Open with a never-show-you’re-nervous performance at Royal St. George’s. With his closing even-par 70, in intermittent downpours and unrelenting wind, Clarke finished at 5-under 275, three shots clear of the field, becoming the third different Ulsterman in the past six majors to win a championship.

But in the United States, where major championships were once a birthright, what memories remain? Phil Mickelson’s thrilling ride to a tie for the lead with an eagle at the seventh? That was marred by . . . well, pick one from a bevy of miscues: a missed two-foot par putt at the 11th to slow momentum, a jacked 9-iron that flew the green from the middle of the 13th fairway for another bogey, a missed five-footer for birdie at 14 to lose the juice completely, and back-to-back bogeys at 15 and 16 that left him merely a bystander.

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Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke held off two American's to win the 140th British Open on Sunday. Golfers from Northern Ireland have now won three of the last six major titles. (July 17)

Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke held off two American's to win the 140th British Open on Sunday. Golfers from Northern Ireland have now won three of the last six major titles. (July 17)

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“I felt like the claret jug was right there to be had,” Mickelson said. It was, but he doesn’t have it.

He wasn’t alone. Dustin Johnson, playing in the final group of a major championship for the third time in 13 months, stood in the middle of the 14th fairway, two back of Clarke, very much in it. He swung a 2-iron on the par 5 for his second shot, ready to make a move. He had the equivalent of the sweeping English countryside to his left.

“I was trying to hit it right at the flag,” Johnson said, “and turn it a little left.”

Somehow, he hit it dead right, past some white stakes, onto an adjacent golf course, out of bounds. The resulting double bogey gave Clarke a four-shot lead with four holes to play, enough room that he could bogey the final two holes, as he did, and still win comfortably. Johnson, still seeking his first major, could only stand to the back of the 18th green as Clarke thrust both his arms in the air, turning to face each of three packed grandstands in triumph.

“It’s been a dream since I’ve been a kid to win the Open, like any kid’s dream is,” Clarke said. “And I’m able to do it, which just feels incredible — incredible — right now.”

So raise a pint to Clarke. He certainly will — and did during his post-championship news conference, Guinness as champagne. Clarke becomes the sixth straight major champion from outside the United States, an unprecedented string. He joins his countrymen Graeme McDowell, who won the 2010 U.S. Open, and Rory McIlroy, who took that same tournament last month, as recent major winners.

But he does so under completely different circumstances. McDowell, 31, is in the prime of his career. McIlroy, 22, is still approaching his. Clarke has been to hell and back, struggling with his golf game, sure, but not nearly as much as with his personal life. In 2006, his wife Heather, mother of his two boys, succumbed to breast cancer.

“In terms what’s going through my heart,” Clarke said, “there’s obviously somebody who is watching down from above there, and I know she’d be very proud of me. She’d probably be saying, ‘I told you so.’ ”

Clarke’s round really wasn’t defined by any single shot, but more by its overall resilience. He made a gutsy, sliding, downhill 12-footer to save par at the first. After Mickelson had tied him by burying a 25-footer for eagle at 7, getting to 5 under, Clarke came through the same par 5 and jarred his own eagle putt from 20 feet, re-seizing the lead.

Johnson, playing with Clarke, had a front-row seat. “He holed a lot of key putts,” Johnson said. Mickelson, playing three groups behind, had to watch the leader boards.

“When he didn’t make any mistakes there throughout the round, I had to start trying to make birdies,” Mickelson said. “And that’s when I ended up making a couple bogeys.”

That might have been what Clarke would have done at a younger time. A winner 13 times on the PGA and European tours, he was rarely a major contender, tying for second at the 1999 Open.

“The hardest thing when you’re a golfer is when you’re labeled an underachiever,” said Clarke’s agent, Chubby Chandler, who also manages McIlroy and Masters champ Charl Schwartzel. “And he was always labeled an underachiever. Now, he’s not.”

To this point, the defining moment of Clarke’s career may have been at the 2006 Ryder Cup, played less than two months after Heather’s death. He was introduced at the opening ceremony with Mickelson as his American counterpart. Mickelson’s wife, Amy, walked between the two, holding both their hands, supporting the widower as much as her husband. In 2009, when Amy got a diagnosis of breast cancer herself, Clarke was one of the first to phone Mickelson. They spoke for a few hours, “just to know what to expect and what they went through and what worked and what didn’t . . . some of the fears that he had,” Mickelson said.

“I was very appreciative of the time we spent,” Mickelson said. After Clarke putted out Sunday, Mickelson ended up by the side of the green to congratulate him.

“He said some very, very kind words to me there after the thing,” Clarke said.

It is, indeed, the warm part of the story. But in the end, Mickelson and Johnson walked onto the green Sunday evening side by side, and each picked up a silver plate commemorating their runner-up finishes. A moment later, Darren Clarke — from Portrush, Northern Ireland — followed, waving the wave and smiling the smile of a champion, gestures American players haven’t made in a long, long while.

 
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