SANDWICH, England – Darren Clarke’s bleary, bloodshot eyes told it all.
The party began shortly after he walked off the 18th green at Royal St. George’s with the claret jug in hand. Beer and red wine flowed through the night, the revelry not letting up until Clarke had to return Monday morning for a few more interviews and some picture-taking at the spot where he tapped in the final putt to win the British Open.
“I have not been to bed yet,” Clarke said. “I probably won’t get any sleep until tomorrow at some stage. You have to enjoy it while you can.
“It’s been,” he added mischievously, “a very good night.”
Clarke sure earned it.
No one had ever gone more than 15 British Opens before winning. Clarke did it on his 20th try at 42, making him the oldest first-time major winner since Roberto De vicenzo in 1967.
But that only tells part of the story. Clarke lost his wife, Heather, to cancer five years ago, leaving him to raise two young boys. Not surprisingly, his focus on the course wavered, which sent him plummeting out of the top 100 in the world. It had been a decade since he was a serious contender in a major – he didn’t even qualify for the three majors that preceded the Open.
“I definitely appreciate an awful lot more what I’ve achieved,” Clarke said. “Ten years ago, I did take an awful lot of things for granted.”
His parents and new love, fiancee Alison Campbell, were at Royal St. George’s to cheer him. Clarke’s two boys stayed home in Northern Ireland, but he phoned them shortly after his three-stroke victory over Americans Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.
“Tyrone, my oldest one, was very pleased, very proud,” Clarke said. “He was going to tell everybody his dad was Open champion.”
And Conor, his youngest?
“He wanted to know what he could spend all the money on,” Clarke said, breaking into a grin.
That’s not surprising. Clarke has always been a guy who lived life to the fullest, so it’s only appropriate that he passed on that attitude to his children.
Then again, given all that’s happened, Clarke plans to handle the spoils of this triumph a bit more prudently than he would have, say, 10 years ago. His Open prize was nearly $1.5 million, and there will undoubtedly be a flood of new endorsement opportunities.
“I actually don’t have anything in mind because I’ve been there, done all that before,” Clarke said. “I’ve had the opportunity to buy whatever I want to buy and all that. This time, I’m a little bit older and a little bit more sensible. If I can put a little bit more aside for my boys’ future, then that’s what I’ll do, as opposed to looking after myself.”
Clarke has long been a stalwart of the European Ryder Cup team, and he’s made no secret of his desire to serve as captain one day. He may have to put off those ambitions for a few years.
Turns out, this guy can still play.
“Playing,” he said, “is much better than being a non-playing captain.”
Clarke became the third golfer from tiny Northern Ireland to win in the last six majors, following U.S. Open champions Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. The Americans haven’t won any during that span, their longest drought of the modern Grand Slam era, though they did have five of the top seven at Royal St. George’s.
Mickelson played the first 10 holes Sunday at 6 under and actually claimed a share of the lead at one point, only to fade down the stretch when his putter faltered. Johnson was in contention again at a major but made another huge blunder, knocking a shot out of bounds just five holes from the finish.
“Northern Ireland…… Golf capital of the world!!” McIlroy tweeted, and there will undoubtedly be a push to add that country’s Royal Portrush club to the rotation of nine courses that regularly host the British Open.
“We’re all very aware of the fact that three winners from Northern Ireland increases the interest level in this,” R&A chief Peter Dawson said Monday. “I have agreed to take a look.”
In 1951, Royal Portrush became the only course outside Scotland and England to hold the championship. But the Royal & Ancient is concerned that a lack of hotels and major roads would make it difficult to host such a big event in the modern era.
“The usual mixture of a great course and plenty of infrastructure combined with the prospect of commercial success is what’s needed,” Dawson said.
From Clarke’s point of view, the course at Royal Portrush is already worthy of a major. But he understands other factors must be considered.
“I would love to have it there,” he said. “It is every bit as good as any Open venue that’s on the rota right now.”
Even though he partied all night long, Clarke still hadn’t taken a swig of one of his favorite adult beverages from the oldest trophy in golf.
“I’m a little bit of a traditionalist,” he said. “I feel a bit funny about putting stuff in the claret jug that shouldn’t be in there, so I’m little bit more reserved as to what I should do. That may not be the case as the week goes by, but at the moment there’s been nothing in there.”
At some point, he’ll try to sort out all the messages he’s received since winning the Open, a victory that was popular with both local fans and his fellow players.
“I have 294 messages,” Clarke said, squinting as he looked down at his cell phone, “and the writing is far too small for me to look at them in this state.”
That will have to wait.
The party’s not over yet.