Strolling along the undulating fairways of Royal St. George’s, puffing away on a cigarette, Clarke was a picture of contentment this week.
“We’ve been with him every night this week,” said Godfrey Clarke, the father of the new British Open champion. “He’s been calm, bubbly. Out on the course, he looked like he was out for a Sunday four-ball.”
So what’s finally turned Clarke from one of golf’s great underachievers to a major winner at age 42?
The elder Clarke credits a happy home life, following a move from London back home to Portrush, Northern Ireland, with his two kids and fiancee Alison.
“It’s left him more settled. The kids are settled, Darren’s settled. And he gets on very well with Alison, who’s a great girl,” he said. “Between the kids being happy and him being happy, it’s calmed him down. He’s happy at home.”
Clarke has finally got his life back together, five years after the death of his wife, Heather, from breast cancer.
At his best, he always had the attributes to go right to the top of the game.
The 4-and-3 victory over Woods, the then-No. 1, at La Costa was at that stage Clarke’s biggest win of his career.
“The hardest thing with Darren was that he’s been slightly labeled an underachiever. And he was,” said his manager, Chubby Chandler, speaking by the side of the 18th green moments before Clarke clinched victory Sunday. “He had the talent to win a major, an Open, but it didn’t happen. For it to happen like this is just amazing. Now he’s no longer an underachiever.
“He was last like this when he beat Tiger in 2000. He had that grin on his face all week. That was one of those weeks when he was unbelievably calm. He’s been like that again today.”
Chandler, a European Tour player-turned-agent, took on Clarke as a client in 1990.
“When he signed him, we knew we had a big one,” said Chandler, who also works with top-10 players Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood. “He was the first client I’d never played with. So I played golf with him the week after, at Mere in Cheshire (in northwest England). I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be great. I’ve got a business here.’
“Even if it was just me, him and my secretary for 20 years, I knew he was going to make me more money than I made as a player.”
There were a few big paychecks – the World Match Play victory earned Clarke $1 million – but never as many as there might have been. Now a major winner with an exemption to the next 20 grand slam tournaments, there could well be a belated rush.
Clarke’s return to Portrush has not only allowed him to be nearer his close friends and family. It’s also given him the opportunity to practice regularly on a links course and in links weather.
While his sister, Andrea, looks after his two boys, Clarke has been working hard on his game at Royal Portrush, the venue of the 1951 British Open.
The target has been a climb back up the rankings from his position at No. 111. And, of course, an elusive major.
“He’s been practicing hard, very hard at Royal Portrush, where the weather is similar to what it’s been here,” Godfrey Clarke said. “He’s not been getting the results. And now it’s all paid off.
“The links was always his type of golf course. Everyone wants this one, the Open. We are totally delighted after everything he’s been through.”
Both Chandler and Clarke’s father said there was never any doubt their man was going to finish the job off Sunday, despite holding just a one-shot lead against big-hitting American Dustin Johnson.
On Saturday night, Clarke and family went to Chandler’s place, where the five-time Ryder Cup player enjoyed a chicken curry, a couple of glasses of red wine and two beers.
A diet of champions.
“He was so relaxed. He’s been the same every day,” Chandler said.
Adding to Clarke’s calm this week were regular meetings with renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella and another guru, Mike Finnigan. Rotella was chatting with Clarke on the practice putting green minutes before the Northern Irishman headed out for his final round.
“They’ve put him a bit more on an even keel,” Chandler said. “Their catch phrase has been, ‘Go out and prove everyone wrong.”’