Sunday, 17 July 2011

Clarke Holds Firm To Win His First Major

By Shane Thomas

A wave of emotion swept across Royal St George's, as Darren Clarke won his first major title at the age of 42. The popular & likeable Northern Irishman shot a final round of 70 to finish The Open Championship on five under par and keep up his country's incredible recent record in majors.

Unlike the other three major tournaments that take place in the United States, The Open stands alone in its degree of difficulty to negotiate, as it is always played on links courses. One cannot take liberties and blast his way around the 18 holes.

A links golf course is a different monster entirely. And it truly is a monster. By the coast, players have to contend with strong winds, thick & uneven rough, and bunkers positioned by the green just waiting to ensnare players who dare to take it on. You don't dominate a links golf course, you survive it.

And it was Clarke who was the last man standing. This was not like his fellow countryman, Rory McIlroy's display in the US Open last month. Where McIlroy performed like a sports car whizzing over the smoothest of tarmac, Clarke was like an off-road vehicle, bulldozing a path around the rocky terrain of Sandwich. He didn't shoot a single round over par throughout the tournament, and his consistency was rewarded with the oldest major title in the sport.

The story of Clarke is one that will elicit the warmest of sentiments if all who have an interest in golf. In an era in where European golf's young guns seem to have seized the top level of the game for their own ends, Clarke is something of a throwback to a time where Tiger Woods stood alone at the top of the mountain, and everyone else - Clarke included - got a sore neck from looking up at the summit.

Always a popular member of the sporting fraternity - there's something about the Irish that we can't help but love, isn't there - Clarke suffered personal tragedy when his wife, Heather was diagnosed with breast cancer. Taking the best part of two years off to care for her, she passed away in 2006. Only six weeks later, Clarke was selected to play in that year's Ryder Cup, and with the players & fans all behind him, he rode a whirlwind of catharsis to play a key role in retaining the trophy for Europe. That seemed as if it would be Clarke's moment in the spotlight. But the golfing gods had something even better planned.

McIlroy was unable to follow up his US Open triumph with success in Kent as his challenge never really got going. Fellow young gun, Rickie Fowler played some lovely stuff but couldn't hole a putt (his time will come), Dustin Johnson was well in contention until he fell apart at the 14th (he may need to sacrifice 72 virgins before he finally breaks his major duck) and Phil Mickleson hit the hottest of hot streaks on the front nine to get a share of the lead, before his putter cooled just as quickly.

While they all fell away, Clarke remained steadfast in conditions that were ardous at times. Not only did the players have to deal with the everyday hurdles of links golf, but the pouring rain only made things more difficult. He never took the course apart, but didn't allow the course to take him apart either. BBC presenter Hazel Irvine ended the channel's coverage by saying, "This was a win for one of the good guys."

And that's why the reaction from the crowd, the commentators, and his fellow players was genuine. Clarke has fallen away from the upper echelons of the game in recent years, but the affection for him has never dimmed. And this was a day in which golf's avuncular and kindly uncle proved that he can still show the upstarts a thing or two.

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