Sport Golf

Saturday 27 May 2017

Clarke is on top of the world

in Sandwich

ONE of those hard-baked John Wayne characters, or Dean Martin, would have celebrated victory at the British Open this hard.

The morning after had become just another part of the night before when Darren Clarke, still beaming from ear to ear, and his new best pal, the gleaming Claret Jug, rolled up at Royal St George's at 9.07am yesterday for a media conference.

The only bed he'd gone near since completing his three-stroke win over Americans Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson the previous afternoon had been a flower bed in the garden around 5.0am, when Clarke took a little time out for a quiet smoke, just himself and the trophy.

His manager Chubby Chandler chuckles as he recalls the brief panic inside the rented house in Sandwich a short while later when Clarke couldn't find the Claret Jug ... it subsided only when the Ulsterman recalled he'd left it behind him outdoors.

So what had Clarke and his fellow revellers supped from the Jug? Was it the black stuff of which he is so fond, or did he wash out the aftertaste of ladybirds with champagne?

Actually, not one drop was allowed to sully the silver.

"There's been nothing in it overnight at all," he explained. "I'm a little bit of a traditionalist. I feel a bit funny about putting stuff in the Claret Jug that shouldn't be in there, so I'm a bit more reserved as to what I should do."

That's vintage Clarke, the high-roller with an old-fashioned heart.

Frankly, Clarke's coherence and self-control under questioning yesterday morning was every bit as impressive as his composure on the golf course at Royal St George's.

"I've not been to bed yet," he smiled. "I probably won't get any sleep until tomorrow at some stage -- you have to enjoy it when you can.

"I've had quite a few pints and quite a few beers and quite a few glasses of red wine. It all continued until about 30 minutes ago ... it's been a very good night."

Poignantly, Clarke explained how winning the Open means so much more to a 42-year-old man who's had to learn the true meaning of the words 'triumph' and 'tragedy' than the garrulous, wonderfully gifted player who threatened to conquer the world of golf on his first coming.

Back in the day, Clarke would have splashed a chunk of Sunday's €999,540 cheque and the £2m bonus his victory earned from sponsor Mike Ashley and Dunlop clothing on the latest Lamborghini or some other exotic boy's toy.

Asked yesterday if he had any purchases in mind, Clarke simply said: "I actually don't have anything in mind because I've been there, I've done all that before.

"This time I'm a little bit older and a little bit more sensible. If I can put a little bit more aside for my boys in the future, then that's what I'll do, as opposed to looking after myself."

Nodding to the Claret Jug sitting in front of him, Clarke went on: "Winning that trophy is beyond price. For all my golfing career, I've wanted this.

"I'm fortunate that it will benefit me hugely financially, but it's more important to have my name on there.

"What's even more important is when I get home, maybe later on today, and my boys have the trophy in their hands, they will be able to look at their dad's name on it."

Of course, Clarke spoke to his sons on Sunday night.

"Tyrone (12) my oldest one, he was very pleased, very proud. He said he was going to tell everybody his dad was Open champion. My younger boy, Conor (10) wanted to know what he could spend all the money on. So there was a huge difference between the two, but they both were very happy."

Once again, 'home' is in Portrush, where he and his two sons moved last autumn to open a new chapter in their lives. Instead of going to boarding school in England, Tyrone and Conor would go to Dalriada College. When Clarke is away on tour they are cared for by his sister Andrea, who also has two lads of the same age.

Clarke also met Alison Campbell, a former Miss Northern Ireland who runs a modelling agency in Belfast; Graeme McDowell is responsible for arranging the blind date in London last summer which led to romance.

Campbell, a vivacious and media-savvy lady, simply laughs and waves away suggestions that she has exercised a soothing influence on the golfer.

Yet there's no doubt that returning home to the warm embrace of family and friends in Portrush and having the opportunity to play and practise on the windswept Dunluce Links over the winter played a hugely important role in Clarke's graduation into a Major champion.

Since his late wife Heather finally succumbed in her battle with breast cancer in August 2006, Clarke has found enormous contentment as a father.

"I am a professional golfer but, No 1, I am a father," he explained.

Looking back on the dark days following Heather's death, Clarke said earlier this year: "I'd much prefer to have to go through this with everything in order than win a Major.

"My boys will always come first," the Ulsterman added. "Yes, my desire is there. Yes, my determination is there. I want to win all the big tournaments in golf but if I have my choice of Majors or my kids, I'll pick my kids every day. That's the way it is."

Driven by powerful sentiments like these, is it any wonder Clarke has at last found within himself the strength to prevail in the mind-warping final throes of a Major championship? Or that the draw, nature and even pure luck seemed to go his way at precisely the right stages during the week in Sandwich?

"Call it fate or whatever you like but sometimes in golf you get the feeling that some things were meant to be," said Chandler.

"Things like being on the favourable side of the draw on Thursday and Friday or that ball which hit a mound and bounced right over the bunker at the ninth on Sunday -- that was remarkable."

For all his natural talent and the skills he developed as a kid practising and playing, often from before eight in the morning until long after nine on summer evenings, at Dungannon Golf Club, Clarke was almost too intense to win a Major in his younger years.

Sure, he slammed the 'unbeateable' Tiger Woods in the final of the 2000 Accenture Match Play at La Costa, sparking a friendship which endures to this day -- Tiger sent several texts to Clarke on Sunday afternoon and then rang him later that night for a five-minute chat.

The Ulsterman would count two World Golf Championships among his 20 tournament victories worldwide and even reach eighth in the world.

However, the closest he'd come at the Majors would be at Troon in 1997, when he led for the first two rounds and, after shanking his ball onto the beach in the early stages on Sunday, would finish tied second behind Justin Leonard.

This was one of just three top-10 finishes Clarke would count in 19 appearances at the Open before last week. Still, the Ulsterman remained one of the most highly respected players on the world circuit and a tower of strength on Europe's Ryder Cup team.

Character

For strength of will, courage and raw character, nothing will ever exceed Clarke's performance at the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club, just weeks after Heather's passing.

Yet Nick Faldo's failure to recognise the astonishing qualities Clarke showed in winning two tournaments in 2008 would thrust his career into a decline. It seemed almost as if the Ulsterman's indefatigable spirit, his confidence, was undermined by the then European captain's decision not to pick him for Valhalla that year.

As McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington continued to march across the game's most exalted stages, Clarke slid out of the world's top 100. Stoically, however, he laboured on in the shadows, never giving up on his dream.

"Did I ever doubt myself? No. Did I ever think that I wouldn't get myself back into this position? Yeah," said Clarke. "I never knew I was going to do that. Did I get frustrated and fed up and annoyed? Yeah. Did I ever doubt my ability? Never. Not at any stage!"

This perseverance was rewarded in spades last Sunday.

As a bright new chapter opens in his career, Clarke, now back in the game's elite top 50 at No 30, was asked if he considers himself a better player now than 10 years ago.

"Yes," he replied emphatically. "And I definitely appreciate an awful lot more now than I did then. Ten years ago, I did take an awful lot for granted as a professional golfer."

Not any more ... which in part explains the depth of his satisfaction and the intensity of his celebrations.

Irish Independent

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