A 'normal bloke' wins the Open

July 17, 2011

When Darren Clarke arrived to play in his 20th Open championship at Royal St. George’s, he was assigned the locker used in 1993 by Greg Norman.

Very few things ever went right for the Great White Shark at majors, but nothing went wrong for him at Sandwich that year; he closed with a record-setting 64 to win his second Claret Jug.

Truth be told, not too many things have gone right for Clarke over the years, either, so he saw it as an omen.

“Tom Watson said it could be a lucky locker for us,” said Clarke’s caddie, John Mulrooney, “It made a massive difference getting that locker.”

Superstition’s as good a place to start as any when explaining how a 42-year-old Northern Irishman on the wrong side of his career arc came to win his first major.

Certainly, he enjoyed the luck of the Irish throughout a dramatic final day.

Two approach shots somehow skirted bunkers — and near-certain bogeys — while a handful of critical putts fell into the hole when they could’ve easily stayed out.

But he also made his own luck with superior ball-striking in the wind and rain that caused such havoc for his rivals.

“As I said yesterday, I’m going to go out and try and play my best, and my best was good enough to win,” he said.

It was indeed good enough — he won by three strokes — but there’s no denying that Clarke got a lot of help, principally from the American posse that chased him.

Phil Mickelson, who’s had only one top-10 finish in 17 starts in golf’s oldest major, started the final round at even par but a magical first 10 holes saw him climb to 6 under par.

The mercurial left-hander could’ve shot anything as he evoked memories of Johnny Miller’s final-round 63 to win the 1973 US Open at Oakmont.

Even after he lipped out birdie putts on eight and nine, Mickelson found himself tied with Clarke.

And even after the Northern Irishman matched Mickelson’s eagle on the par-5 seventh, Lefty shot back right away with a birdie on the 10th.

He was revising his history on the links in one afternoon.

“When you make 20-footers, it doesn’t matter what kind of golf it is,” said Anthony Kim, who played alongside Mickelson. “The hole looks as big as a bucket.”

But as has too often been the case with Mickelson, the bucket suddenly became a thimble.

On the 11th, he missed an embarrassingly short par putt.

From there, he never recovered, making three more bogeys to finish at 2 under par, tied for second with Dustin Johnson.

Johnson was two behind Clarke going into the long par-5 14th when he inexplicably shanked his second shot out-of-bounds. The resulting double bogey killed his chances at a breakthrough major.

Rickie Fowler played the round of the third day in unpalatable weather, but dressed in orange, he couldn’t make a putt on Sunday and was never a serious threat. He shot a final-round 2-over 72 that won’t be exorcising any demons for the winless 22-year-old.

In the end, closing was easy for the man who spent most of the day in short sleeves despite the fact that it wasn‘t short-sleeve weather.

“I certainly had a few thoughts going through my head when I was walking onto the green on 18 because at that stage I could have four putts from there, and even I figured I could manage to get down in four from the edge of the green,” Clarke said.

As it was, he got down in three and, when he tapped in for bogey, became one of the most popular winners of this trophy in many years.

“Because I’m a bit of a normal bloke, aren’t I?” he responded when asked why the people so liked him.

“I like to have a pint.”

And with that, he sat at the dais in the press center and sipped from a pint of Guinness.

“There’s not many airs and graces about me,” he continued.

“I was, as a few of the scribes will attest to in here, a little bit more difficult to deal with in my earlier years, and I’ve mellowed some.

“(Now) I’m just a normal guy playing golf, having a bit of fun.”

Clarke’s having more fun these days but for many years he was in dark places, both on and off the course.

His wife, Heather, finally lost a long battle with breast cancer in 2006. The couple had two boys, both of whom love playing golf.

“You know, bad times in golf are more frequent than the good times,” Clarke acknowledged.

“There’s times I’ve been completely and utterly fed up with the game.”

No one mentioned Heather by name, but Clarke hadn’t forgotten her.

And maybe he had his own theory as to why he finally won a major. Maybe it wasn’t all about using Greg Norman’s locker.

“In terms of what’s going through my heart,” he said, “There’s obviously somebody who is watching down from up above there, and I know she’d be very proud of me.”

“She’d probably be saying, ‘I told you so.’ ”

“It’s been a long journey to get here. But, you know, I got here in the end.”