LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – There’s a conundrum that faces every major champion. It begins when the celebration ends, when the revelry fades and the next chapter of life blows back like sideways rain in a 40 mph wind.
Consider it an inevitable byproduct of prosperity. Once the pinnacle is reached, one lingering question remains unanswered, scratching and clawing and eating away at the champion.
It is a query which the last Open Championship winner at Royal Lytham & St. Annes has often discussed and is still attempting to resolve. David Duval won here in 2001, the culmination of a brilliant half-decade performance that included 13 victories. Since then, he has failed to secure another title and his game has resembled that of mere mortals in the world of competitive golf.
Darren Clarke can sympathize.
Last year’s champion has enjoyed the spoils of success while also enduring its hardships. In the year since that triumph at Royal St. Georges, he has made the cut in just nine of 16 starts, his best finish coming in the form of a T-17 at the Volvo World Match Play Championship – an event that featured two dozen players with T-17 also serving as a tie for last place.
“I've certainly fallen into a little bit of a trap of trying to play better and 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 up and down in the first place,” Clarke said Monday, just moments after handing the claret jug back to R&A officials. “Unfortunately, that's the nature of our game. You get success at the highest level and it just creates some more. I want to win again and I want to win bigger and better tournaments. There is none better than the Open Championship, but I want to win the big tournaments. I just pushed myself too hard to do that.”
There is no mathematical formula to quantify the difficulties that many champions face in the wake of achievement.
Undoubtedly, though, the issues are in large part mental, the player trying to live up to increased expectations, both from himself and external agencies. They are also technical, an attempt to reconstruct the swing which bore such fruitfulness. And even physical, the rigors of that journey taking an unexpected toll on the body’s form.
More than anything, though, this conundrum must be psychological. Recreating the thoughts and feelings, motivations and inspirations, wants and desires that flowed during victory often remains an uphill climb in subsequent months and even years.
The imagery is best explained by major champion Paul Azinger, who is providing color analysis for television this week: “When you climb Mount Everest, I don’t think you’re going to go rush over and climb Mount Rainier. It’s just one of those things. And maybe that Mount Everest experience causes those guys to just let down just a little bit as they get older.”
Clarke, who turns 44 next month, certainly resembles that remark. That is less criticism than keen observation – and one which the Northern Irishman himself shares during a moment of reflection.
“From the day that I lifted a club and started playing, this is all I ever wanted to do was win the Open Championship,” he stated. “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 then start practicing every hour of the day, it wasn't quite clicking into place.”
This may serve as golf’s ultimate Catch-22.
It takes everything a player has – skill, talent, perseverance and luck – to claim a major championship, then it takes even more to try to accomplish it once again.
“You've got to learn to lose before you can win,” Clarke said. “The lows of losing put you in a position where you can appreciate the joys of winning – and that was certainly my case.
“I had strived for it my whole career and I managed to get over the line in the end. Certainly I did enjoy it last year. It was obviously one of the highlights of my career thus far and I would love to get myself back in the same position. But losing is part of golf – unless you're Tiger Woods and you win his percentage of tournaments, but there's not many of us that do that. But it's part and parcel of the game. You've got to lose and then enjoy the win, which I did.”
His struggles since that victory have been well chronicled, but Clarke now sounds like a man intent on reclaiming that feeling rather than continuing to bask in it. He won’t be amongst the tournament favorites when he tees it up on Thursday, but then again, he wasn’t amongst favorites last year, either.
Perhaps turning the page to a new chapter will serve as proper motivation for Clarke, the figurative sideways rain and 40 mph wind serving as a parallel to the expected on-course conditions.
“Now that I've given the jug back for this week,” Clarke surmised, “maybe I'll get back to playing the way I can play.”