British Open: Darren Clarke hopes to find the missing link in defence of his crown
THE surrender of the Claret Jug into the hands of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club yesterday signalled a return to the ranks for the British Open champion and to some degree a reprieve. The fulfilment of a boyhood dream Darren Clarke thought had passed him by thrust him into virgin territory as a major winner. No matter how much a golfer wants it, he is never quite prepared for the demands attached.
The elevation comes with a responsibility to meet each week the requirement for excellence displayed at the one tournament where it all came together. Winning is statistically unusual, yet when the magic strikes at a major championship the victor is propelled into a world in which expectation reaches unsustainable levels. Failure to contend is no longer measured against previous disappointments but the silver pot sitting on the mantelpiece. Darren Clarke found this particularly difficult to negotiate, as he explained after the handover.
"I've certainly fallen into a little bit of a trap of trying too hard as opposed to just going and playing, getting into a mentality that I've got to go out and play like the Open champion, instead of just playing the way that I played in the first place. I got a little caught up and tried too hard. Unfortunately that's the nature of our game. You get success at the highest level, and it just creates [the need to taste] some more. I want to win again and I want to win bigger and better tournaments. There is none better than The Open, but I want to win the big tournaments. I just pushed myself too hard. From the day that I lifted a club and started playing, all I ever wanted to do was win The Open. It took me quite some time to reflect upon it and see where I wanted to go after I'd won it.
"I struggled with that for quite some time, and then when I did start practising every hour of the day, it wasn't quite clicking into place. Maybe now that I've given the Jug back for this week, maybe I'll get back to playing the way I can play."
Clarke begins his defence alongside Ernie Els and Zach Johnson, a winner on Sunday at the John Deere Classic. He presented a relaxed, smiling countenance and in a bout of faux contempt took issue with one observer who suggested he was unhappy with his game during practice on Sunday.
"Were you walking a few holes? I didn't realise you came out of the media centre. No I'm very happy at the moment, thank you."
What might threaten his equilibrium as the week progresses is the condition of a course that has taken a battering from the weather, particularly the rough.
"There are a few patches out there where it's just brutal. The grass is a little bit thicker than what you normally find on links golf courses. It's really, really tough. If you start spraying the ball around this week, you might as well go home. There's no chance coming out of this rough at all. Some of the longer par 4s are going to play into the wind. Obviously if you start missing the fairways you're really going to struggle. Even if they do find the balls in some of those areas, I don't know if you'll be able to take a full swing and move it."
The greater the degree of difficulty, the more Clarke comes into the equation. His management of Royal St George's in equally inclement weather a year ago proved the difference. An upbringing on the Northern Irish coast does not guarantee success but it does condition against a negative attitude when the wind blows. There is an acceptance of the weather as a structural feature of the links experience, like a bunker or a mound. A willingness to adapt to shifting circumstances is central to the project. Clarke is playing better than at any time since his victory in Kent and is clearly enjoying the heightened atmosphere here.
"Links [golf] to me is the truest form of the game. If you can learn to play on links, you can play on anything. It's a bit more difficult if you grew up playing on an inland golf course where you have got to hit the ball in the air all the time to carry a certain yardage, which is more the typical sort of courses in America. Growing up on a links you've got to learn to adjust your ball flight and control it a bit better. I think it's a skill that's not that easily learned, but if you grew up doing it, then it obviously makes it a little easier."
As does setting out from the champions' side of the locker room, a privilege the like of which Clarke will never tire. "Last year at Royal St. George's, I was beside Mr Watson and a few of the other guys. I couldn't quite figure it out. Why am I in this locker? It was due to the late withdrawal of Greg Norman. Who can we put in there that won't offend anybody? So they stuck me in. This year I'm back in the same area, the champions' area, but having won it, I've earned my place this time."
Clarke in figures
84: Clarke's world ranking. It was 30 when he won Open
200k: Prize money in dollars won by Clarke on the PGA Tour since winning The Open in 2011
4: Times Clarke has not made the cut in PGA events since Open triumph
9: Tournaments (PGA) that Clarke has played in since The Open