SANDWICH, England — No matter how long it grows or even how quickly, the list of major champions from the tiny country of Northern Ireland just wouldn’t feel complete without Darren Clarke.
He doesn’t have the majestic swing of Rory McIlroy or the putting prowess of Graeme McDowell, the last two U.S. Open champions. He hasn’t contended in a major for the last 10 years, wasn’t even eligible for the last three majors and was no longer among the top 100 in the world.
Clarke’s three-shot victory in the British Open was met with unending applause Sunday, the loudest saved for the closing ceremony when he was introduced as the champion golfer of the year.
More than that, Clarke is a man of the people.
“I’m a bit of a normal bloke, aren’t I?” Clarke said, the claret jug at his side. “I like to go to the pub and have a pint, fly home, buy everybody a drink, just normal. There’s not many airs and graces about me. I was a little bit more difficult to deal with in my earlier years, and I’ve mellowed some. Just a little bit. But I’m just a normal guy playing golf, having a bit of fun.”
He was extraordinary at Royal St. George’s.
A cigarette curled under his fingers as he barreled down the fairways, Clarke held off brief challenges from Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson and held up under the pressure until no one could catch him.
Mickelson, who needed only seven holes to make up a five-shot deficit, stepped aside by missing too many short putts. Johnson, in the final group of a major for the third time in the last six, made another blunder with a major at stake. This time, he was two shots behind on the par-5 14th, tried to lay up with a 2-iron and hit it out-of-bounds to make double bogey.
They shared second place, stretching the American drought to six straight majors without winning.
Despite meaningless bogeys on the last two holes, Clarke closed with an even-par 70.
“Pretty amazing right now,” Clarke said. “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.”
The weather was so wild that heavy rain switched over to sunshine, back and forth all afternoon, in a relentless wind. Clarke was steady through it all, never allowing himself to think about what it meant to hold the claret jug until he stepped onto the 18th green.
Clarke removed his visor to salute the gallery. His hair is almost all gray now, the result of a 42-year-old who has gone through more hard times than he cares to remember, the worst of it losing his wife to cancer five years ago.
“Bad times in golf are more frequent than the good times,” he said. “I’ve always been pretty hard on myself when I fail because I don’t find it very easy to accept that. And there’s times I’ve been completely and utterly fed up with the game.”
The advice from friends, family and agent Chubby Chandler were always the same.
“Get out there and practice and keep going, keep going, keep going,” Clarke said. “And that’s why I’m sitting here now.”
With a one-shot lead over Johnson going into the final round, there was a sense that Clarke wouldn’t be able to hold up. But he holed a 12-foot par putt on the first, a downhill 8-footer for par on the third. A 20-foot eagle putt on the seventh, not long after Mickelson made eagle to tie him, gave Clarke the lead for good.
Northern Ireland had gone 63 years — since Fred Daly in the 1947 British Open — without winning a major. Now it has three of the last six.
“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.
Maybe McIlroy, who shot a 73 and complained the weather didn’t suit him at the British Open, can return the favor.
“He missed Munich for mine, so I don’t think I’ll miss a tournament for his, but I’ll definitely be there,” McIlroy said. “And I’ll definitely be one of the last ones to go to bed.”
The celebrations also seemed to be for someone else, and Clarke had reason to believe his time had gone. 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.
He is engaged now, yet his thoughts were with his wife.
“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 two Americans.
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.