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'Slide toward irrelevance'? Clarke emphatically says it ain't so

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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SANDWICH, England -- Underneath all the jokes, jabs and jovial banter, the fire burned deep inside Darren Clarke.

When a reporter at the U.K. daily The Guardian who had written off the aging Northern Irishman asked a question Sunday night, Clarke recited a particularly cruel line from the two-year-old newspaper clipping.

"Hang on," Clarke said playfully as he scratched his head. "I'm trying to recollect your little line. 'He's in his inexorable slide toward irrelevance.' Is that what you said? I've got the paper at home. I can show it to you if you don't believe me."

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Then Clarke reached out and clutched the Claret Jug with his name already engraved upon it.

"This is a mirage," he said.

Not hardly. Clarke won the British Open at Royal St. George's in his 54th major start. All jokes aside, he got serious about what it meant to fulfill a lifelong dream to be "champion golfer of the year" after all his hardships.

"You know, bad times in golf are more frequent than the good times," Clarke said. "You know, 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. But friends and family and Chubby [Chandler, his manager] say, 'Get out there and practice and keep going, keep going, keep going.' And that's why I'm sitting here now."

Clarke was also sitting there enjoying a pint of Guinness served to him at the podium because he played brilliant golf for four days under the most challenging conditions. Royal St. George's showed the field everything it had in every kind of weather, and Clarke never shot worse than par.

Chandler said he saw the same look of calm in confidence in Clarke's face when Clarke beat Tiger Woods in the 2000 WGC Match Play Championship at LaCosta.

"It happens about every three years, though," Chandler said of his oldest client.

Sunday, an early three-shot lead was erased by a charging Phil Mickelson, who almost swayed the allegiance of the galleries that overwhelming had backed the Northern Irishman. The crowds were so exuberant that Clarke repeatedly had to raise his hands to settle them down so partner Dustin Johnson could play.

But Clarke answered Mickelson's roaring eagle at No. 7 with one of his own, then cruised along as a host of American challengers faltered down the stretch.

Clarke was calm and collected as he navigated the wind and rain and terrain Sunday, erasing years of frustration. He extended the streak of European Tour dominance in the majors to six in a row by becoming the oldest Euro (42 years, 337 days) to win a major.

It's going to have to be 'Wait Watchers' for now, because Darren Clarke was into the Guinness early. (Getty Images)  
It's going to have to be 'Wait Watchers' for now, because Darren Clarke was into the Guinness early. (Getty Images)  
Clarke continued the remarkable ride of wee Northern Ireland (pop. 1.8 million) by becoming the third Ulsterman in six majors to win the crown, joining the last two U.S. Open champions, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy. When it seemed the young stars had engulfed the aging mentor in their own long shadow, it was the old guy who prospered.

"We're blessed to have obviously two fantastic players in Rory and GMac," said Clarke. "And I've just come along -- the old guy coming along behind them. You know, we've just been lucky. 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."

His youngest protege was as thrilled as Clarke with Sunday's outcome.

"It'll be a very emotional victory for a lot of people," said McIlroy shortly before Clarke had closed the deal. "You know, he's had to go through a lot of things, and it's almost as if -- especially back home in Northern Ireland -- he's the forgotten man a little bit with Graeme doing what he did last year and then me coming on. So it would be fantastic to see him win."

Sunday's victory is the climax of a remarkable journey by Clarke, who along the way has dealt with his share of professional heartache and personal heartbreaks including the death of his wife, Heather, to breast cancer before the Ryder Cup in 2006.

Even Mickelson -- who put up the best links performance of his career only to fizzle in the end -- was pleased with Clarke's accomplishment. The two of them become friends at that Ryder Cup in Ireland when Mickelson and his wife, Amy, walked hand-in-hand with Clarke during the opening and closing ceremonies.

Their friendship was sealed two years later during long conversations on the phone after Amy Mickelson was diagnosed with breast cancer. Clarke was one of the first people to call the Mickelsons and offer his first-hand advice.

"He's a tremendous person and a very good friend, and I couldn't be happier for him," said Mickelson. "It was fun to try to make a run at him."

Clarke shared a warm moment with the Mickelsons on the 18th green before the Claret Jug presentation.

"He has turned into a very good friend of mine through thick and thin, and he said some very, very kind words to me there after the thing, which is great," Clarke said. "And Amy is looking fantastic, as well."

Chandler, whose clients include major winners Ernie Els, McIlroy, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, said Clarke's victory was the most emotional for him.

"I know how hard he works and I know how much he beats himself and I know everything about him," Chandler said of the scattered travails of his client and friend of 21 years. "He lost about five or six years of his career."

With all the emotions swirling through Clarke's head, he held himself in check all day. He paused only a moment and looked up before tapping in his final putt from two inches to win by three, saying to himself, "You've done it at last."

While he's found new love in his personal life -- he's engaged to former Miss Northern Ireland Alison Campbell -- he felt the presence of the mother of his two boys as the cheers from the galleries rushed over him.

"There's obviously somebody who is watching down from up above there, and I know she'd be very proud of me," he said of his late wife. "She'd probably be saying, 'I told you so.' 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. As I say, I'm 42 and I'm not getting any younger.

"But you know, I've got here in the end. It may be the only major that I win, it may not be the only major that I win. But at least I've gone out there today and did my best, and my best was good enough to win. If I had come off and hadn't won, I could still have said I did my best."

Clarke withdrew from a European Tour event in Germany last month to stay home and celebrate McIlroy's U.S. Open victory. Now McIlroy promises to return the favor in the coming days before they both play the Irish Open.

"I'll definitely be there and I'll definitely be one of the last ones to go to bed," McIlroy said.

Clarke hopes to suspend his agent's mandated campaign to start him on Weight Watchers on Monday morning. The first of many Guinness pints he intended to drink wasn't a promising kickoff to his diet.

"I think this could probably be a bad week for me to try and start," he said. "I think every time there's five points in a pint of Guinness, I think it's a real bad week for me to start. With Chubby doing it, I can't get away from listening about him doing it."

Clarke has more than his figure to worry about now that he has prospered in the shadow of his young countryman and restored himself to golf relevancy and a full major schedule for at least the next five years, Clarke said he has to reassess his goals in a game that almost left him behind.

"I don't just want to rest on this," he said. "I want to keep on going, keep on working on what I'm working on because my golf was obviously very good this week, albeit it was links and links does suit me. But I still feel as if I can compete with the best players in the world, and that's what I want to do. Obviously I can."

Scott Michaux is the sports columnist and golf writer for the Augusta Chronicle and augusta.com.

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