THE whole world, it seemed, walked with Darren Clarke up the 18th fairway to victory in the British Open Championship at Royal St George's yesterday.
This was Ireland's sixth Major title in four years and an astounding third for the wonderful 'Wee North' in just 13 months... yet this triumph by Clarke must warm the heart of every golfer on the planet.
Never before has a man waited so long and toiled so hard for victory at The Open. Have any shed as many tears or, let's be honest, uttered as many oaths in frustration as this 42-year-old, hot-blooded broth of a boy from Dungannon.
Standing at the back of the final green at Sandwich yesterday evening as thousands rose in unison to roar their approval as their new Open champion hove into view, one was struck by the vast contrast between Clarke's beaming smile and the tears he shed on another equally unforgettable day at The K Club five years ago.
We all cried with Clarke on 16 that Sunday at the Ryder Cup and gasped in awe at his courage. Yet, there wasn't a wet eye in the house at Sandwich as he putted out for a final round of 70 and a three-stroke victory over Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson.
No tears were shed as he clasped the Claret Jug and raised it in elation, just as Padraig Harrington had done at Carnoustie in 2007 and Royal Birkdale in 2008.
For this was an ode to joy, a sporting occasion perhaps as sweet and cheering as any I've witnessed in 34 years of sports reporting.
The closest Clarke came to choking at any point during a weekend in which the world wondered at his composure was when he showed the Claret Jug to the interviewer for BBC TV Northern Ireland and said "this is for the boys" -- his two sons Tyrone (13) and Conor (11).
In his victory speech, Clarke offered heartfelt thanks to his mum Hettie and father Godfrey -- who as Head Greenkeeper at Dungannon Golf Club first enrolled their 11-year-old son Darren and daughter as junior members -- as well as his fiancee Alison Campbell and Chubby Chandler, his agent since 1990. Then Clarke pointed to the heavens and made heartfelt mention "someone who is watching down on us," a lovely reference to his late wife Heather, who died of breast cancer in August 2006.
For sure, emotions were welling up inside him but the new Darren Clarke has learned how to control them. "This is pretty amazing right now, to tell you the truth," he later said in his media conference, looking at the gleaming silver jug standing beside the pint of dark stuff on the desk in front of him. "You know, it's been a dream since I was a kid to win The Open and to do it just feels incredible, utterly incredible, right now."
Asked how he managed to maintain his composure throughout a day made infinitely more dramatic first by a full-out assault on the tournament lead by Mickelson and then a mid-round rally by his playing companion Johnson.
"I'm just a little bit older and allegedly a bit wiser," said Clarke, who by winning The Open at the 20th attempt had just surpassed the record of Nick Price, who won at the 15th attempt in 1994.
"I certainly had a few thoughts going around in my head when I was walking onto the green at 18 because at that stage I could have four putts from there (out on the far left fringe where his ball had come to rest). Yet then I figured even I could manage to get it down in four.
"I'd a few thoughts about the past and again during that interview with the Beeb and making the speech. But I can only be as normal as I am. If I didn't feel a little emotional, it wouldn't quite be right. I was, but I just about managed to cling onto it."
No question, the elements smiled on Clarke during the first two rounds as he established the 36-hole lead with two opening rounds of 68 in, weather-wise, the favourable half of the draw.
The complexion went a little red when he dropped a shot at four on Friday but any doubts were blitzed by a spectacular eagle three at seven, where Clarke's 100-foot putt from off the green rammed the pin and dropped into the cup.
All week he'd been getting signs, like on Monday when he was assigned Greg Norman's locker, the one the Aussie used when he stormed to victory at Sandwich in 1993.
"Tom Watson said it could be a lucky locker for us," said Clarke's caddie John Mulrooney, the Bray native adding: "We always felt it was meant to be this week and it made a massive difference getting that locker."
Clarke had plumbed such depths of frustration in the final round of the Scottish Open, he sought out his old mind coach Dr Bob Rotella on Monday and poured his heart out to the American... Rotella preaches acceptance and, having reached rock-bottom, the Ulsterman truly was prepared to listen.
In Dr Rotella's opinion, one of the most telling moments in Clarke's transformation into a Major champion came on the front nine on Saturday when, a tad nervous, he took three tentative missed putts in his stride without even the faintest hint of an implosion. At last, he had found acceptance.
"That was huge for Darren," explained Rotella, who was encouraged even further when he first clapped eyes on Clarke at the golf course yesterday morning. "I saw him signing every autograph with a big grin on his face and I thought to myself, 'oh beautiful'."
That's precisely how Clarke played yesterday, with a smile on his face and confidence in his putter as he rolled in a crucial 13-footer for par at the first; holed out from four feet for birdie at the second and then from eight feet for par on nine.
Up ahead, Mickelson was "having more fun than I ever remember on a golf course" as he joined Clarke at the head of the field on five-under with three quick-fire birdies followed by an eagle three at the seventh.
Clarke opened the advantage once again by sinking a 15-footer for an eagle of his own at the long par-five and the galleries prepared themselves for a battle royale on the back nine as Mickelson landed another birdie at 10.
Yet the American's charge would come to an unceremonious end when he missed from inside three feet for his par at 11... Mickelson, as is his wont, would miss a couple more tiddlers before blazing his approach shot into the stands at 18.
It was then left to Johnson to lead the assault but the towering American ceased to be a threat when he hit his second shot at 14 out of bounds. Clarke had a four-stroke cushion playing the final two holes and he could afford to bogey both in comfort as he completed the longest and almost certainly one of the most emotional marches to victory in Open history.
Along with his winner's cheque for €999,540, Clarke also banks a massive £2m bonus from his sponsor Mike Ashley, owner of Newcastle United and the Sports Direct chain of sports stores... but the joy he shared with the golfing world is priceless.