Darren Clarke, Open champion. Easy to say, hard to believe. But that was the story told on Sunday as the big man from Dungannon walked strong and proud through the squalls, all the way up the final hole theatre at Royal St George's to claim the greatest prize in golf.
At the age of 42, in the supposed twilight of a distinguished career, the Northern Irishman followed his countryman and one-time protege Rory McIlroy into the role call of Major champions with a 3-shot win. It was a victory for pure talent and for the Everyman. In an era of the golfer athlete, Clarke is the cigar-smoking, Guinness-drinking proof there is more than one way to make history.
The winning putt, uproariously greeted in the stands around the 18th green, dropped in from all of three inches. But the journey to that moment had taken Clarke through triumph and despair both on and off the golf course.He had won more than 20 tournaments around the world, but never the big one. He had played a distinguishing role in five Ryder Cup teams, never more so than in 2006 at the K Club, when he performed brilliantly for Europe just a few weeks after the death of his wife, Heather. Yet for all that he had never gained entry into the club reserved for Major champions — a rotten injustice for a golfer acknowledged by his peers as one of the most naturally gifted of his generation.
Injustice, be gone
Afterwards, he paid tribute to his deceased wife and to his two sons, Conor and Tyrone. The boys watched from home in Northern Ireland as their father showcased the skills he learned in his youth and which he recently became reacquainted with after moving from London back home, to Portrush.
'She's watching me'
"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. She'd probably be saying, I told you so," he said of the late Heather Clarke. "But I think she'd be more proud of my two boys and them at home watching more than anything else. It's been a long journey to get here. It's incredible — it really is. It's for the kids."
Clarke's victory continues the remarkable run of success in Major championships for Northern Ireland. It now boasts of three victories in 13 months. Not bad for a nation of 1.8m people. By comparison, the United States's (population, 300m) total of Major victories over the same period stands at zero. Of those three wins, this one came as the biggest surprise.
His playing partner, young Dustin Johnson of USA, known for the length of his hits, fizzled out as Clarke applied subtler arts to take control.
Clarke has links golf running through his veins. He understands the importance of the ball flight – the lower the better – and that a golfer has no better friend than par in the wind and rain that swept across the course all day. A famously impatient man, he also found it within himself on this day of days to wait for the championship to come to him. And come it did.
The art within
His scoring highlight came at the par-five 7th, where he holed from 30 feet for an eagle. But the true beauty of his performance lay in its incremental parts. A cut shot here, a running hook there, a four-foot putt rammed into the back of the cup — like a painter laying down his brush strokes until, finally, the masterpiece is complete.
On a couple of occasions the bounce went his way, but for every piece of good fortune there was a putt that lipped the hole and somehow stayed above ground.
There was no luck in this victory, only sweetness and redemption. It was not so long ago that Clarke was written off by some "experts" – a premature dismissal that apparently spurred him on.
"You know, bad times in golf are more frequent than the good times," he said, eyeing the Claret Jug beside him.