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Archive for Monday, July 18, 2011

Darren Clarke unlikely British Open champion

July 18, 2011

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— 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.

No matter.

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 made 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.”

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.

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