Darren Clarke won The Open at the 20th attempt
In less than 24 hours Darren Clarke managed to lift the Claret Jug on the 18th green at Royal St George’s, then lose it in a nearby back garden and then return with it the next morning to produce a euphoric winner’s press conference that changed tradition forever.
Yet it was what he did with it at the end of this swirling fantasy that remains uppermost in his recollection. Darren Clarke, Open champion, returned home to Portrush and presented it to his two sons. “This is for you,” the tearful father told Conor, 10, and Tyrone, 12 as the trio embraced.
“That’s my principal memory of that win, certainly the one I cherish most,” Clarke tells Telegraph Sport. “After everything they’d been through in the years before… it’s like any dad, you want to make your kids proud. I think they realized it. They realize it even more now they’ve grown up – their dad’s an Open champion. But right there, that was a very special moment.”
The Clarkes had lost Heather, 39, five years before to breast cancer. The golfer immediately moved the family from Surrey back to his beloved coastal hometown in Co. Antrim and despite a remarkable display six weeks after the tragedy at the 2006 Ryder Cup in Dublin, the years had ticked by, time had started its healing process and everyone assumed the big man’s career would peter out without the major that had seemed its destiny.
“I was 42 and not supposed to win at Sandwich,” Clarke says. Ranked 111th in the world, Clarke was 200-1 with the bookies. A sentimental flutter.
What whipped up on those windswept Pegwell Bay cliff tops were a deeply emotional four/five days, providing emphatic proof of the ancient game’s propensity to reward perseverance. No one had ever gone more than 15 starts in the British major until winning. This was Clarke’s 20th attempt.
“Others might have given up on me, but I hadn’t. So much happened that week, so many things came together. It did seem like it was meant to be.”
Darren Clarke kisses the Claret Jug following his victory at Royal St George's in 2011
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
The tale is by now so ensconced in folklore it has its own cliches, but as the Open finally returns to Royal St George’s, Clarke would like to address one or two misconceptions. “Everyone says I was playing c— when I showed up, but I was actually striking it well. I’d won a few months before in Majorca, had played nicely in Scotland the previous week, my long game was right where it needed to be. The reason I was marching around like a bear with a sore head was my putting. We were not on speaking terms at all and it was incredibly annoying to me that it was going to ruin my tee-to-green form.”
That is when Dr Bob Rotella made his entrance, strolling onto the stage at the end of the first act, unannounced, but with an award-winning supporting role. “Yeah, he told me I had to turn my brain off, clear my thoughts. So much easier said than done. But it worked.
“That week I was so calm and collected, was just fully accepting. Wherever the ball finished it didn’t bother me. God, I wish I could have bottled that feeling. The weather was rough, suited me down to the ground, and I was that unflustered I didn’t look at a leaderboard until the 16th green and I was four clear – so it was only a case of not buggering it up.
“I was actually working with two psychologists at that time – Rotella and Mike Finnigan – and I guess that’s another first. But when your mind gets as messed up as my mind, then needs must. Whatever help you can get and whatever direction it comes from. I’m not proud.”
Clarke was proud, however, and had every right to be. “I’m a very lucky person in the fact I achieved my lifetime goal and not many people can say that. My name was suddenly there on the Jug and I’m sorry, but that meant a huge deal and so I celebrated the way I like to celebrate.
“I didn’t leave anything on the table, put it that way. You know, there was plenty said and written about how I behaved, but to be honest with you I wouldn’t change a thing.
“Granted there was a moment of panic when we couldn’t find the Jug [it was on a table in the garden of his rental house] and yeah you could say the press conference on that Monday morning was interesting. I don’t think they do them anymore. After mine, they probably thought, ‘hmm, I’m not so sure this is a good idea’. I’ll take the credit for that.”
The one aspect that grates is the notion of a genial character resting on those laurels for which he had for so long yearned. “The opposite,” he says. “It was more like, ‘I got one – right, what do I need to do to improve, and get better and do it again?’ So I went down a route of trying to hit more fades than draws and then got lost in the whole technique of the thing.
“In my infinite stupidity or wisdom or however you want to put it, I ripped up the swing that won me the Open. Foolish. That’s just me. The search for perfection drives me. I know it’s unattainable, but to this day, I’m still busting my b— on the range searching.”
On the course there were some bleak times, most notably as the losing captain at the 2016 Ryder Cup. Over the years there were intermittent rumours of retirement. “Just sheer frustration. The odd conversation, maybe, but actually going ahead and quitting? No. Look, I love the game and I hate the game at times. But I must love it more because I couldn’t think of leaving it.”
Again, his belligerence has borne fruit. Clarke, 52, now lives in the Bahamas with second wife Allison and admits an “obsession with salt water fly-fishing and maybe the old glass of sea breeze as well”. It is an idyllic existence but one in which the competitive fires still rage.
The competitive fires still rage in Darren Clarke on the seniors tour
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Last November he reacquainted himself with victory – beating Jim Furyk and Bernard Langer at the TimberTech Championship – and in his very next Champions Tour outing, prevailed again. “It was great to have that feeling again, and I’m telling you, it might be easy on the outside to dismiss the senior tours, but it’s a bloody high standard. I’m a great believer that winning travels. When Phil [Mickelson] won the [US] PGA the other month at 50, it was all, ‘he hadn’t won for two years’. But he had. He’d won twice on the Champions Tour in that last year.
“Phil is Phil but he has given older guys added belief, of course it has. You’d say it was even more likely to happen at a links. It’s that type of golf where you need a bit of experience and of know-how to use the ground, especially if the weather is misbehaving. If it’s just as it was in 2011, that would be perfect.
“I’m certainly not going back there as a ceremonial golfer, just to wave at the crowds. I’m playing pretty decent, although I’m not rolling it on the greens the way I’d like. But we’ve heard that story before, haven’t we?”