[Editor's note: Click here for the Top 10 Newsmakers selection process and article release dates.]
As he readied for his final round at this year’s Open Championship and with winds whipping at his pant legs and demons nipping at what has historically been a fragile psyche, Darren Clarke steadied himself against both forces the only way he knew how.
“When I saw him laughing and signing autographs I knew he would be OK,” Dr. Bob Rotella said shortly after Clarke set out for his historic final turn at Royal St. George’s.
The “Dungannon Cannon,” Clarke’s media-produced nickname, was clinging to a one-stroke lead over Dustin Johnson and few outside of a tight circle of friends and family gave the Ulsterman much of a chance.
Rotella, however, had seen something different as Clarke rolled putts and laughed.
“I said, ‘If you are unflappable you’re unstoppable,’” Rotella recalls. “This is why we play. You have to let yourself do something you already know how to do.”
With that the world’s 111th-ranked player went out onto a wind-whipped layout and defied the odds – which saw him tee off on Thursday as a 125-to-1 long shot – and conventional wisdom to win his first major championship.
Clarke closed with an even-par 70 that was not nearly as contested as his closing bogeys would suggest. Phil Mickelson, who teed off 30 minutes before Clarke, tied for the lead with an eagle at the seventh hole, but played the rest of the way in 3 over to finish tied for second place; while Johnson pulled within two strokes before fanning his second shot at the 14th hole closer to the adjacent Prince’s Golf Course.
Even with his closing bogeys Clarke won by three strokes to end a Grand Slam drought that had stretched to 53 major championships and a competitive slide that began when Clarke’s wife, Heather, died before the 2006 Ryder Cup.
But since last summer those around Clarke had begun to see signs of life. His old waistline returned – “(Manager Chubby Chandler) always said I play better fat. I think he may have point,” Clarke smiled – and he returned to his beloved Portrush after 13 years in London.
He also began dating again and is engaged to a former Miss Northern Ireland named Alison Campbell, whom he met through Graeme McDowell.
The last piece of the puzzle arrived at Royal St. George’s after more than two decades of trying. Clarke, a larger-than-life figure for much of his career, listened to his “old friend” Rotella and became unstoppable.
“I'm just older, just a little bit older and allegedly a little bit wiser,” Clarke said late Sunday at St. George’s. “You know, I can only be as normal as I am. So if I didn't feel a little bit emotional it wouldn't quite be right.”