When the world’s top golfers fail to win majors, there’s little certain at tournaments like the British Open.
|British Open champion Darren Clarke holds the Claret Jug following his first major win [GALLO/GETTY]|
Darren Clarke was a picture of cool as he clinched victory at the British Open on Sunday, ending his long wait for a major.
The popular 42-year-old from Northern Ireland kept his nerves under control in demanding conditions to card a level-par 70, leaving him five under for the tournament and three strokes clear of Americans Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.
The win capped a final round of twists and turns at Royal St George’s, where wild fluctuations in the weather were mirrored early on by a fast-moving battle at the top of the leaderboard before Clarke’s rivals fell away.
It also represented a triumph of persistence for Clarke, who finally claimed the famous Auld Claret Jug at the 20th time of asking, a new record.
Clarke, whose ranking has slipped to 111 in recent years, becomes the oldest winner of the Open since Argentina’s Roberto de Vicenzo won aged 44 in 1967.
“It is just incredible. I’m a bit speechless. I played okay today, I did what I had to do and the last few holes when I was far ahead I just tried not do anything stupid,” Clarke said.
Many observers had assumed that Clarke’s days of challenging for majors were over, with the veteran Ulsterman seemingly destined to forever rue his near-miss at the 1997 Open at Troon, where he tied for second.
Clarke had started Sunday’s final round with a one-shot advantage over Johnson, who was desperate to atone for suffering two agonising near-misses at last year’s US Open and US PGA Championship.
Yet for long periods of a thrilling final 18 holes, it looked as if three-time major winner Mickelson would pose the most serious threat.
Mickelson, who had started the day five behind Clarke, produced a dazzling putting display over the front nine to wipe out the Ulsterman’s lead and join him at the top of the leaderboard on five under.
Mickelson reeled in Clarke with three birdies and an eagle to go out in five-under-par courtesy of some red-hot putting, and he might have had another had a birdie putt not lipped out at the eighth.
|The leaderboard following Darren Clarke’s victory in the 140th Open Championship [GALLO/GETTY]|
But Clarke then hit back with a 20-foot eagle putt of his own on the par-five seventh to move to seven-under and move two clear of Mickelson, setting the stage for a nail-biting climax over the back nine.
Mickelson closed to within one of Clarke after holing another long-range putt from 18 feet at the 10th for birdie.
Yet just as it seemed that the momentum was with the 41-year-old from California, Mickelson’s flawless putting deserted him with bogeys on the 11th, 13th, 15th and 16th.
He eventually carded a two-under-par 68, leaving him two under for the tournament, three behind Clarke.
Clarke’s victory was the third by a golfer from Northern Ireland in a major tournament in just over a year, following Rory McIlroy’s triumph at the US Open last month, an event won by Graeme McDowell 12 months earlier.
It also extended American golf’s record major losing streak to six. The last US golfer to claim a major was Mickelson at the 2010 Masters.
“Northern Ireland… Golf capital of the world!” tweeted pre-tournament favourite Rory McIlroy, who concluded an unhappy Open with a three-over-par 73 to finish seven over for the tournament.
It had been a decade since Clarke was a serious contender in a Grand Slam event, and the one-time face of Northern Ireland golf was thought to be long past his prime.
Well, he showed the kids a thing or two at Royal St. George’s and added another major winner to Northern Ireland’s growing collection.