Original Northern star goes supernova


GOLF:Despite a fine and honour-laden career, the 42 year-old Clarke had become a forgotten hero – until yesterday, writes PHILIP REID, Golf Correspondent at Royal St George's, Sandwich

THE IRONY won’t be lost on Darren Clarke, a man who always seemed to be in a hurry. Clarke’s first Major title – in his 20th appearance in the British Open – has come towards the back end of an honour-laden career, one where he won two World Golf Championships and inspired in the Ryder Cup, most memorably at The K Club in 2006, and has amassed almost €20 million in career prizemoney.

But, now, as a 42-year-old, he has discovered the “holy grail” at a time in his career when Clarke had become, as Rory McIlroy put it, “the forgotten man” of the sport in Northern Ireland, where those inspired by him – McIlroy and Graeme McDowell – had stolen his thunder. Not any longer.

As a youth, Clarke’s talent was obvious, both on the rugby field and on the golf course. Rugby, though, was to take a back seat – as far as playing – as Clarke, who’d taken up the sport as an 11-year-old when he progressed from caddying for his father Godfrey, became a golfer who set the tongues wagging around the courses of Ireland.

Indeed, as an amateur he excelled, winning the Irish Close championship – beating Pádraig Harrington in the final of 1990 – and claimed the North, South and East of Irelands as well. But he didn’t hang around to play in the Walker Cup. He was a certainty to be selected for the 1991 Walker Cup at Portmarnock but Clarke decided to make the move into the professional ranks, joining the fledgling International Sports Management agency set up by former tour player Chubby Chandler.

It was a tie-up that was to prove mutually beneficial, establishing a personal friendship as well as a business partnership.

The first win as a professional took three years to eke out. Clarke’s first European Tour success came in the 1993 Alfred Dunhill Open, but it was to be a mere precursor to an honour-laden career that saw him win at least once every season from 1998 to 2003. Among those wins were a victory in the 2000 Accenture World Matchplay – when he out-duelled Tiger Woods down the stretch of the final – and in the 2003 Bridgestone Invitational, another World Golf Championship event.

Clarke was always a trendsetter, becoming the first player on the European Tour to shoot 60 for a second time at the Smurfit European Open at The K Club in 1999. He had first accomplished the feat at the 1992 Monte Carlo Open.

Ironically, he failed to win either event. But the propensity for low scoring made Clarke a marketable commodity on tour where his liking for a pint of Guinness and the odd cigar saw him to stand out from the crowd.

Personal tragedy, however, was to strike with the death of his wife, Heather, in 2006 – just weeks before the Ryder Cup at The K Club. Fittingly, Clarke – playing as one of captain Ian Woosnams “wild card” picks – was somehow to play a hugely significant role in Europe’s win over the United States, emerging with an unbeaten record and winning all three of his matches.

After the death of his wife, Clarke – who set up the Darren Clarke Foundation to help develop junior golf in Ireland, and which now also helps to promote breast cancer awareness – juggled the responsibility of raising his two sons, Tyrone and Conor, with a life on tour. In 2008, he nevertheless managed to win twice, the Dutch Open and the Asian Open – but was overlooked by Nick Faldo for a captain’s pick on the Ryder Cup team.

Even back in 2008, Clarke was insistent his best lay ahead and not in the past. “There are more wins in me, I’m a long way from being done yet,” he remarked at the tail-end of that year.

Last year, he won the JP McManus invitational tournament at Adare Manor which gave him a huge confidence boost: he finished runner-up in the following week’s Scottish Open, which earned him a place in the following week’s British Open. And a 30th place finish in St Andrews gave him his ticket to the scene of his greatest triumph here at Royal St George’s.

Having returned to live back in Portrush last year – he announced his engagement to model agency owner Alison Campbell last Christmas – he won his first European Tour event in three years when he captured the Iberdrola Open in Mallorca earlier this season. It was a small stepping stone for what lay ahead.

Clarke has a work hard, play hard attitude. “I’ve always been generous rewarding myself with things. I’ve always like the cars, the wine and the cigars. Now more than ever. We’re only here once. You’ve just got to enjoy it. I don’t look at myself as being famous. I’m just a golfer. I just like to go to the pub and have a pint of Guinness. That’s me.”

Always known as a hard worker, his long-time sports psychologist Dr Karl Morris – with whom he wrote a best-selling book – once remarked, “Darren’s a massive perfectionist and that’s what makes him work so hard. One of the bigger myths about Darren is he doesn’t work hard enough. But his idea of a day off is to play 36 holes. Darren knows how good he is and, without question, he is the most gifted player I have ever seen.”

At another point, Morris offered the opinion: “If he ends his career without winning a Major championship, I think he will feel unfulfilled.”

Now, that is a moot point.

Clarke – who has been more relaxed this past week than at any time in his long career – was once asked what characteristic he most disliked in others. “The inability to see the bigger picture,” he replied, adding: “Sometimes people need to step back and see what’s really going on. I had to do that with my golf.

“But rudeness is my number one hate. ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’ are two of the easiest things in the world to say. I try to instil that in my two boys.”

WITH THIS WIN . . . . . . . .

Takes his 14th European Tour International Schedule victory in his 460th European Tour event.

Moves up to sixth with €1,303,927 in the Race to Dubai.

Moves into the top 30 in the official World Golf rankings from 111th.

Claims his first Major championship in his 54th Major championship appearance.

Victory comes in his 20th British Open championship appearance, a record number of appearances for a player winning their first Open.

At 42 years and 337 days is the oldest player to win the British Open championship since Roberto de Vicenzo, who was 44 years and 93 days in 1967.

At 42 years and 337 days is the oldest player to win a Major since Ben Crenshaw at the 1995 Masters, who was 43 years and 88 days.

At 42 years and 337 days is the oldest player to win their first Major championship since Roberto de Vicenzo, who was 44 years and 93 days in 1967.