SANDWICH, England – Another major goes to Northern Ireland. The surprise was Darren Clarke’s name on the claret jug.
Ten years after he last contended in a major, no longer in the top 100 in the world, Clarke delivered his defining moment Sunday in the British Open when he held off brief challenges from Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson to win golf’s oldest championship.
The weather was so wild that heavy rain changed to sunshine, back and forth all afternoon, while the wind was relentless.
Clarke was a steady presence through it all.
A 20-foot eagle putt on the seventh hole gave him the lead for good, and he didn’t drop a shot until it no longer mattered. With bogeys on the last two holes, Clarke closed with an even-par 70 for a three-shot victory over the two Americans.
“Pretty amazing right now,” Clarke said, the claret jug at his side. “It’s been a dream since I’ve been a kid to win the Open, like any kid’s dream is, and I’m able to do it, which just feels incredible.”
Northern Ireland had gone 63 years without a major. Now it has three of the last six – Graeme McDowell in the U.S. Open last year at Pebble Beach, followed by Rory McIlroy at the U.S. Open in a record performance last month at Congressional, and now the 42-year-old Clarke.
“Northern Ireland…… Golf capital of the world!!” McIlroy tweeted as Clarke played the last hole.
“We’re blessed to have two fantastic players in Rory and GMac, and I’ve just come along, the only guy coming along behind them,” Clarke said. “We have fantastic golf courses, we have fantastic facilities, but to have three major champions from a little, small place in a short period of time, it’s just incredible.”
They are so close that a week after McIlroy won the U.S. Open, Clarke pulled out of a tournament in Germany so he could return to Northern Ireland and join the celebration.
They were always for someone else. Clarke had reason to believe his best celebrations were behind him. Surely, nothing could top playing a Ryder Cup on home soil in Ireland five years ago and leading Europe to victory just one month after his wife, Heather, died of cancer.
“In terms of what’s going through my heart, there’s obviously somebody who is watching down from up above there, and I know she’d be very proud of me,” Clarke said. “She’s probably be saying, ‘I told you so.”’
Indeed, this was overdue.
No one had ever gone more than 15 starts in the British Open until winning, and this was the 20th try for Clarke. Yet even as he struggled with his game and the adjustment of raising two boys without their mother, and as the spotlight shifted to youth, Clarke never gave up on his dreams.
“I always believed I would get myself back up here,” he said before heading out to the 18th green to collect the oldest trophy in golf. “I always believed I had enough talent to challenge and win one.”
He delivered on the demanding links of Royal St. George’s to hold off Mickelson and Johnson.
Mickelson, rarely a threat in this major, made up a five-shot deficit in seven holes and was only one shot behind after a birdie on the 10th until he started missing short putts. He shot 38 on the back nine, hitting his final approach into the grandstand.
Then it was Johnson’s turn. In the final group of a major for the third time in six years, Johnson made two birdies early on the back nine and was only two shots behind when his second shot to the par-5 14th went out of bounds, ending his hopes again.
The last hour was a coronation for Clarke, long a popular figure not only in Europe but around the world. Puffing away at cigarettes as he barreled down the fairways, he never looked to be in any trouble.
And the few times he did, the golfing gods came to the rescue. He twice hit shots that were headed for pot bunkers well short of the green, only to hop over them or around them, keeping him in control.
He posed with the claret jug that was empty, but not for long. He promised some “nice, Irish black stuff” by evening. And when asked about the celebration, Clarke promised only that it would be “long.”
“And I’ll be very, very hungover,” he said.
He finished at 5-under 275 and became the first player in his 40s to win a major since Vijay Singh at the 2004 PGA Championship. Only two other players were older than Clarke when they won their first major – Roberto De vicenzo (44) in the 1967 British Open, and Jerry Barber (45) in the 1961 PGA Championship.
For the Americans, their longest drought without a major since the Masters began in 1934 will continue at least until the PGA Championship next month. They had plenty of contenders, from Mickelson to Johnson to Rickie Fowler and Anthony Kim, but none came through.
Mickelson’s problems started on the par-3 11th, when he missed a par putt from just inside 3 feet.
“It was just a dumb, mental error,” Mickelson said. “I just lost focus there, and it hurts to throw shots away like that when I’m behind.”
He wound up with a 68, which felt more like a 78, and had his seventh runner-up finish in a major.
It might have been more devastating for Johnson, who never lost his composure even as he fell four shots behind on the front nine. Johnson made a 6-foot birdie on the 10th and a 15-foot birdie on the 12th to get within two shots.
Just like that, it was all over.
Johnson had an 8-foot birdie attempt at No. 13 as Clarke went over the green. Instead of a potential two-shot swing, however, Clarke saved yet another par, and Johnson missed his putt. From the middle of the 14th fairway, Johnson tried to lay up with a 2-iron, playing a draw back toward the flag. The wind caught it and took it beyond the white stakes, and Johnson hung his head and dropped another ball in the fairway.
It was another wasted opportunity – the 82 in the final round of the U.S. Open with a three-shot lead, then taking a two-shot penalty on the last hole of the PGA Championship when he didn’t realize he was in a bunker.
“The more I put myself in this situation, the better,” said Johnson, who closed with a 72. “The more I learn, the more I understand my game and what happens in this situation.”
Thomas Bjorn, who threw away the British Open in a bunker on the 16th hole eight years ago, acquitted himself nicely. He never got closer than three shots all day, but his 71 put him in fourth place and at least earned him a trip back to The Masters next year.
Chad Campbell (69), Kim (70) and Fowler (72) tied for fifth.
Clarke won for the second time this year – he beat a weak field in Spain that was opposite The Players Championship – and goes to No. 30 in the world. He had been No. 111, the lowest-ranked player to win a major since Shaun Micheel in 2003 at the PGA.