Big celebrations on home turf where locals had kept the faith
THE course at Dungannon Golf Club was deserted yesterday, but it wasn't the wind and rain that drove members indoors.
There was much more important business at hand, as the club's most famous son Darren Clarke finally won the major his talent had promised, but fate had appeared to deny him.
Throughout the afternoon Dungannon's small and normally sedate members' bar became steadily more packed -- and more raucous. The cheers grew louder as each completed hole brought Clarke closer to the biggest win of his 21-year career.
By the time Clarke walked on to the 18th green at Royal St George's in Sandwich, England, champagne corks were being popped back in Dungannon.
At the centre of celebrations and dressed in one of Clarke's own golf shirts was family friend Raymond "Hackney" McGerr. Yesterday's Open Championship was the first one he had missed attending in 20 years. But with a laugh, he insisted he was glad not to be there.
"Maybe I should have stayed away from the rest of them, this one is special to all of us, it's very, very special to me and my family," he told the Irish Independent.
"I've known Darren since he was five years of age. I've played golf with him and knocked about with him.
"He was always in fancy cars and used to tell me 'You need to change the wheels on that car, that's a beautiful car, but you need to change your wheels.'"
Clarke turned pro at the age of 21, but it wasn't until yesterday -- a full 21 years later -- that he won his first major. In the intervening years he came close a number of times, but many people had written off the Ulsterman.
"At 42 years of age it's unbelievable and he's had a few chances so we thought that maybe his day had gone," said Dungannon's Honorary Secretary Sean T Hughes last night.
But for four days this week he has kept his head fairly clear, he played steady golf and the excitement has just built.
"Many had written him off," Mr Hughes said. "But not everyone."
"A lot of people here bet on him at 125-to-1, some people even got him at 150-to1, so a few small bets of £10 (€11.40) have turned in a £1,500 (€1,700) windfall."
Like a lot of people at Dungannon yesterday, Mr Hughes has known Clarke since he was a young boy and has seen him go through good times and bad, none more so than during the loss of his wife Heather, who died from cancer at the age of 39 in 2006.