Darren Clarke had a smile on his face on a golf course again on Sunday afternoon – as he finally lifted the Claret Jug and the British Open title at Royal St George’s in one of the great stories of Irish sport.
Five years after the Irish nation shed tears with Clarke at the K Club’s Ryder Cup, just weeks after the death of his wife Heather to cancer, big Darren won his first Major.
Clarke followed his close friends Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington into the record books as a Major winner with a three shot triumph at Sandwich.
His win was worth almost a million and a half dollars in prize money alone – and he banked a $3million bonus from clothing sponsors Dunlop for his first Major triumph.
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It was fully deserved as Clarke led from start to finish on the final day of his 20th Open.
The highlight of his opening nine holes was a quite brilliant eagle on the par five seventh as he went to the turn.
He then held his composure as the raging winds and scattered showers battered the best golfers in the world and one by one the challengers from both sides of the Atlantic fell by the wayside as only four players finished under par.
Phil Mickelson had a peek at the winner’s enclosure with a brilliant 30 shots on the front nine then collapsed on the run for home as he finished on two under and alongside Dustin Johnson in joint second.
Johnson was on Clarke’s tail until he out his second into the out of bounds on the 14th and the Ulsterman extended his lead to three shots with four to play before he sealed the deal without a blemish.
The 42-year-old Clarke was greeted like the people’s champion by the huge galleries on every one of those 70 shots in the final round as he made his way slowly but surely to the 18th hole coronation.
Now back living in his native Northern Ireland and engaged to former model Alison Campbell, Clarke finally tasted that Major Magic as Northern Ireland celebrated a third major in just 13 months.
Not even a bogey five on the 18th and a level par 70 could dampen Clarke’s celebrations on the final green as he threw his arms to the heavens.
Manager Chubby Chandler then burst into tears as he hugged Clarke on the side of the 18th green before the trophy presentation.
Speaking to the BBC straight after the final putt of the 2011 Open Championship, Clarke revealed that his sons were watching at home in Portrush after an early morning round at the world famous links he now lives beside.
“It has been an emotional time – this win is for my boys,” declared Darren as he followed Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington into the Major winners’ enclosure.
“Everybody goes through difficulties and stuff and I have had a really tough one but it is fine. My boys were watching at home in Portrush and this is for them.
“We will have a long celebration now and I will be very, very hungover”!
Clarke held his nerve throughout Sunday’s win on a day when only four players finished under par for the tournament.
“It is all a bit of a daze but it is wonderful to have eventually won the Open and a first Major,” said Clarke.
“I just played sensible all the way around and the eagle at seven was great.”
Asked about winning the Open at his 20th attempt – a record – Clarke added:
“I guess I am a little bit different to everyone else but I always believed I could win it.
“I didn’t think my time had come and gone. I always believed I would get myself back up here and I always believed I would challenge and win one and now I have. It is wonderful.”Current US Open champion Rory McIlroy had to settle for a final round 73 and a seven over par title on his first competitive outing after winning at Congressional.
McIlroy even picked up a one shot penalty when his ball moved on the seventh green in a round and a tournament that just couldn’t finish quickly enough for the 22-year-old.
“I’m not a fan of tournaments that the outcome is predicted so much by the weather - it’s not my sort of golf,” said a frank McIlroy afterwards.
“All the amateur tournaments I’ve won were played on links courses but they were all relatively calm. I’m looking forward to getting back to America and getting back into some nice conditions.
“That’s the Open Championship and that’s the way some years go. You either deal with the weather or just wait for a year when it’s nice.
“My game is suited for basically every golf course and most conditions, but these conditions I just don’t enjoy playing in really.
“That’s the bottom line. I’d rather play when it’s 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind.”
Ominously, McIlroy added: “There’s no point in changing your game for one week a year.
“I’m going to spend a few days at home now getting my swing back to where it needs to be. The wind sort of messes it up a little bit.”