Sometimes in golf writing, we try too hard to draw neat lines and boundaries and discern storylines, trends and questions: Like, what’s up with American golf? Who is the next Tiger? Is golf suffering from too many first-time winners?
And then along comes a story like Darren Clarke.
Along comes a 42-year-old with a famous name in golf, but with no major wins. Along comes a player we all remember from the early 2000s, but a player who hasn’t finished top-10 in a major since 2001. Along comes a guy who professes his love of drink and people, of good cheer and perspective – but a guy who was believed to be fading from the golfing landscape, despite a European Tour win in May, his first in three years, his world ranking a lowly 111th.
Along comes a Guinness-bellied gent who is gregarious, who smiles and laughs, but someone who has been dealt a devastating blow in life, losing his wife, Heather, in 2006. She was the mother of his two sons, dead of breast cancer at age 39.
Along comes Darren Clarke, British Open champion, first-time major champion, ball-striker extraordinaire for four blustery days at Royal St. George’s, best player in the field for 72 holes, his lifetime sporting dream fulfilled, at a time in his life and an age on his calendar that said no way it could happen.
But it did. He’s the Champion Golfer of the Year.
See, sometimes there are no greater “trends” to be analyzed; sometimes there are no great “conclusions” to be drawn. Sometimes there is a just a story to feel damn good about, and make you realize why you even bother caring about these silly little sporting events after all.
ESPN made a concerted effort not to delve into the maudlin, to over-emphasize the story of Darren Clarke the Widower. After all, the ’06 Ryder Cup in Ireland, just weeks after Heather’s death, was the time and place for golf to mourn with one of its most popular figures. And still, there was no denying the relatable moment for all of us when Clarke said, standing on the 18th green, Claret Jug in hand: “I’m sure you all know … there’s somebody up there looking down at me.”
Yes, Darren Clarke as British Open champion wasn’t just a triumph of straight drives around Sandwich’s unpredictable turf, or lasered iron shots to rumpled and fickle greens. It was, as American golfer Joe Ogilvie tweeted, “never a more popular major champion in golf’s history.”
Overstatement? Surely, a debate worthy of a few pints of Guinness, or the “Irish black stuff” Clarke told the R&A he’d drink out of the Claret Jug Sunday eve.
ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi asked Clarke why the crowd shouted so loudly for him, why the fans at Sandwich carried him with their cheers. Clarke smiled, twinkle in the eye, and said: “Because I’m not the typical athlete. I’m not the guy who goes to the gym all the time. I’m a little bit on the heavy side. I like a drink, I like to socialize, to relax. I think most people can identify with that.”
At which point, I broke out an “MVP! MVP!” chant from my couch.
In a golf world transitioning out of the Tiger Era, we sometimes struggle to figure out trends. Rory McIlroy’s win at Congressional heralded the start of a new era, guys like me said, and yet McIlroy finished tie-25th and, surprisingly, said afterwards he hates playing in inclement weather. Does that mean the Rory Era is over? Hardly. It means he’ll roll into the Atlanta Athletic Club’s hot, steamy PGA Championship in his comfort zone, and we can’t wait to see him.
We all looked at the trends of majors winners in their 20s – Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, McIlroy – and decided it was a young man’s game. Does Clarke’s win – oldest Open Championship winner since 1967 – end that talk? Heck no, and Dustin Johnson, aged 27, knocked quite loudly until a terrible swing at the worst time – specifically, O.B. on No. 14 – ended that run. Not to mention Rickie Fowler, aged 22, finishing top-5 for the first time in his seventh major start. These things make for a fun future.
What Clarke’s win meant was that golf, and really, links golf – as I was just saying to my good friend Tom Watson over a friendly round at Turnberry; and mentioning to my other good friend, Ben Curtis – can provide unexpected glories, stories out of nowhere that move you, make you cheer, maybe turn your skin all bumpy and warm.
There was no single magic moment for Clarke, no Seve-like ‘car park birdie’ or Lefty ‘6-iron from the pine straw’ or Tiger ‘Nike logo chip-in on 16.’ If you want one, maybe it was his calmly extended putter amid raindrops as he buried an eagle putt on No. 7 to match Phil Mickelson’s eagle minutes earlier. Or, maybe it was his golf ball magically hopping over the fairway pot bunkers on No. 9 and scurrying to the green, causing Clarke to break into that familiar on-course smile, laughing with the golf gods.
No, instead it was a magic week for Clarke. He led from the first day after his 65, and he allowed us all to marvel at the run of mystic golf from the tiny country of Northern Ireland, population 1.8 million but now with three of the last six major champions. That’s an astonishing thing, and calls to mind other outrageous motherlodes of sporting talent, like the fact that Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey all came from Alabama to baseball in the 1950s, or that Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Dan Marino all honed their quarterbacking skills in the cradle of Western Pennsylvania. Add Ulster to that list of special geography in sports.
Funny enough, it took Clarke to be inspired by countrymen a decade, and two decades, younger. When Graeme McDowell won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, it motivated McIlroy. And when Rory won the U.S. Open at Congressional, the Northern Irish golf mafia must have wondered if it were all a dream. As McDowell tweeted when Clarke played his final few holes: “Darren Clarke is aiming to become the first Northern Irish major champion in nearly four weeks!”
Shortly after Rory’s record win, videotape surfaced on YouTube of a 9-year old Rory showing off his golf skills on a Northern Irish chat show. Asked who his favorite golfer was, the amazingly cute little guy said, in that increasingly familiar Northern Irish accent: “Darren Clarke.”
I’d like to think Clarke saw that, and I’d like to think something stirred deep inside the big fella. By the time he walked up 18 to those endless cheers, no doubt pondering life’s incredible highs and devastating lows, something surely stirred inside all of us.
Scorecard of the week
• 70-69-71-68 – 2-under 278, Phil Mickelson, tie-2nd, British Open, Royal St. George’s, Sandwich, England.
I confess: I’m sort of speechless on this one.
For a guy who’s won four major championships, for a guy who’s won 39 times on the PGA Tour, for a guy who is easily considered the second-best player of the last 20 years … can there be any better summation of Mickelson’s what-if career than his Sunday at Sandwich?
Starting the day five shots back of Clarke, at a championship where he’d only notched one top-10 finish in 18 previous tries, it was reasonable to think good ole Lefty and his sheepish grin – still flashing, even amid the lashing rain – would be an also-ran at Royal St. George’s come Sunday evening. Surely, he’d get praised for taking a new attitude to Sandwich, saying he’d treat the 2011 Open as if it were his first, and for playing well. But also just as surely, he wouldn’t capture the third leg of a career Grand Slam. Right?
And yet, there he was. It was 7:22 a.m. in California, I hadn’t even eaten my first Eggo waffle, and there was Lefty, stepping, fist-pumping and acknowledging his eagle putt on No. 7 while the ESPN commentators processed this fact:
By starting par-birdie-par-birdie-par-birdie-eagle, Mickelson was five under through seven holes, and tied for the lead.
Forget ‘Breakfast at Wimbledon.’ It was ‘Breakfast with Lefty,’ and time for Darren Clarke to take advice from Satchel Paige: Don’t look back. A grinning Lefty in a black rain suit might be gaining on you.
When Phil birdied No. 10 to go 6-under for his round, and stay one back of Clarke, it was fully, officially and most definitely ‘on.’
Short Miss Phil.
‘Dumb, Mental Error’ Phil. His words, not mine.
‘Lost Focus’ Phil. Again, his words, not mine.
The Phil Mickelson we remembered from all those pre-majors years before 2004, the Lefty who seemed to run towards open doorways only to trip and fall, right in the foyer, came back – in high-definition on our TVs, no less.
He missed an 18-incher for par on No. 11. The gasp from Kent could be heard in Phil’s hometown of San Diego.
That’s the part he called “dumb,” “mental error” and “lost focus.” No argument here.
When he bogeyed No. 13 from the middle of the fairway two holes later, head shakes could be imagined around the globe. When he failed to birdie the par-5 14th, and missed a short par putt on No. 15 after a drive found a fairway bunker, and when he finally, in a bad bit of slapstick comedy, rifled his approach on 18 into the grandstands, there was no getting around it.
Bad Phil blew Good Phil’s great chance at a British Open.
As golf writer Doug Ferguson of the AP tweeted: “Phil shot 68, and it feels like 78.”
And yet, there was so much to like about his British Open. The tie-2nd marked his best finish ever. The charge up the leader board gave a Sunday morning jolt to America. And afterwards, Lefty was unbowed, calling it “a great week … some of the most fun I’ve had” hitting shots in the wind. He lavished praise on Clarke, said how happy he was for his good friend, and flew home to America – as Lefty as ever.
Mulligan of the week
• And then there’s Dustin Johnson.
Playing in the final twosome for the third time in six majors is a helluva thing. At some point, setting aside Dustin Johnson’s tragic history, we need to take some time to marvel at the South Carolinian’s physical tools. To be in a major hunt – again! – after Pebble last year, and the phantom bunker at Whistling Straits takes some kind of moxie, and shoulder turn, and soft hands and skill.
You know what else takes moxie? Bouncing back from bogeys on No. 3 and No. 6 in the final game with Clarke. Walking to No. 7 tee, Johnson was three shots back of both Clarke and Mickelson, seemingly out of it, and here he came: birdied No. 7, birdied No. 10, birdied No. 12, showing that bounce-back ability, zooming past Mickelson on the leader board and arriving at the par-5 14th hole only two back of Clarke.
And No. 14 was a D.J. Special, waiting to happen: a monster par-5 that only he could reach in two. It could be a turning point hole.
Unfortunately for Johnson, it was.
After a gigantic drive, he had a decision to make, and his decision was a lay-up with a 2-iron. He would try to draw it against the wind.
Instead, he pushed it right. Way right. Into the wind right.
And out of bounds.
Ouch. Double ouch. Stroke-and-penalty ouch.
A double bogey ended the dream, and added a third chapter of Major Championship Woe for Dustin Johnson in the last 13 months.
Maybe the white belt is unlucky?
Either way, he was philosophical – yet again. “The more I put myself in this situation, the better,” Johnson said. “The more I learn, the more I understand my game.”
There are learning curves, and there are Mount Everest-inclined learning curves. Right now, Dustin Johnson may need a Sherpa more than he needs a caddie.
So, for his psyche, for his sanity, and for our psyche, and our sanity watching a brilliant player stumble over and over and over, can we go back out to the 14th fairway and … give that man a mulligan!
Broadcast moment of the week
• “Oh, this has started right, it’s gotta draw … this golf ball’s gone out of bounds.” – Andy North, on-course reporter with Dustin Johnson at No. 14, ESPN. “Wow. That is absolutely shocking. To hit the ball so well all day, what was he thinking? You’ve got half of Kent over to your left to lay up.” – Paul Azinger, marveling at Johnson’s woe, ESPN. “He’s making this walk in the park a lot easier for Darren Clarke … this is three majors now he potentially could have won. It looks like maybe a bit of a pattern.” – Curtis Strange, tying a bow on Johnson’s misery, ESPN.
I included multiple ESPN voices on the BMOW, because I wanted to pay tribute to what I thought was excellent work by the whole crew. Maybe I was just enjoying a week off from Nick (I Won the British Open Once; In Fact, I Won Three of Them! Did You Know That? Cause I Will Remind You If You Don’t!) Faldo, but I found ESPN’s voices – Azinger, in particular – to be insightful, helpful, honest.
Azinger and Strange spoke of Clarke’s likability in the locker room, telling us that Clarke was “everyman” and a gentleman, too. Azinger told us Mickelson, a high-ball hitter, was hitting lower shots through the wind, and marveled. Tom Rinaldi had relaxed, informative chats with Darren Clarke – although truth told, Clarke can make any interview enjoyable, going back to Jim Rome’s good line, “There are no great interviewers, there are great interviewees.”
When Azinger flirted with calling Johnson’s shot a shank, Strange differed, saying Johnson’s attempt to hit it low, to run it up, wound up in a block. Strange later said Johnson and Mickelson “made it easy on (Clarke) by self-destructing.”
Hats off to the crew, which also included Tom Watson’s just-concluded-playing reports of how the golf course played. Only one thing could have made it better, which leads to …
Broadcast moment of the week, part two
• “I’m sorry. I was a little busy on the golf course.” – Darren Clarke, smiling at the ESPN cameras, post-victory.
Rinaldi revealed that ESPN asked Clarke to be part of the broadcast team this week at Sandwich. Only one thing got in the way: Clarke was en route to being Champion Golfer of the Year.
Where do we go from here?
• Are you kidding? I mean, we could talk about Dustin Johnson going to play the Nordea Masters in Sweden, or about Sandwich contender Anthony Kim going to play the Canadian Open, but the smart move is to head to one place: Darren Clarke’s victory party!
His prediction? “Long,” he said, twinkle in the eye.
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- Darren Clarke