So this is what Darren Clarke does for an encore.
The last time we saw Clarke, he was riding off into the sunset after leading the 2006 European Ryder Cup team to victory. Only a few short months after the death of his wife Heather, a breast cancer victim, there he was going 3-0, inspiring everyone around him, European and American alike. It was a virtuoso performance, his magnum opus to date. That magical afternoon, he left golf’s center stage to applause and acclaim, respect and reverence. He hadn’t won a major, but it didn’t matter. Clarke had an everyman personality the public loved, and the immeasurable grace, indeed valor he showed in fighting back after losing his wife was enough to make him immortal. He transcended the need to “validate” his career.
But now five years later, Clarke returns triumphantly, impossibly, from the pages of a generation past. He was supposed to be a ceremonial figure this week – the fountainhead from which sprung McIlroy and McDowell, but a lightning rod, not the lightning. Instead, we hail him: “Champion Golfer of the Year,” Claret Jug in one hand Guinness pint in the other.
In doing so, he defeated leaderboard that could have passed for a Who’s Who of World Golf. Bunched like a steeplechase, over a dozen of the best stallions in the game were within five shots, waiting to streak last should old Clarke show his age. After all, at 42 and in blustery, cold, wet old Kent, swings can break down just enough to fumble away a Claret Jug faster than you can say Van de Velde.
It had to be leprechauns; that’s the only answer. Nothing else can account for the staggering number of mysterious happenstances, zany bounces, and otherwise inexplicable confluence of semi-miracles that gave Clarke the chance to claim the title.
First there were Westwood and Donald, the World number 1 and 2 both failing to make the cut. It’s the first time that’s happened at a major since 1989. If there were a 10-shot rule – in there case even if it were an 8-shot rule – they would have made the cut. Maybe they apply some pressure, maybe not, but that’s a big obstacle out of the way early. Leprechauns? Well they sure have no love for the English, now do they?
Then there were storms out of the pages of the last judgment that tore through the field, inflating the scoring average to a bloated 76.7. But when Clarke stepped to the tee the clouds parted as if by magic, and he strolled to a Saturday round of 69, taking the lead outright over Dustin Johnson of the million-dollar talent but ten-cent head, (at least on Sunday). Leprechauns? Well, I’m sure we can’t just chalk it up to chaos theoryâ€¦
Then there was Phil Mickelson, mistaking the British Open for the Masters making a 5-under run on the front, streaking up the leaderboard like a firework and transfixing every American eye in the press tent. He caught Clarke with an eagle on seven, (which he played Driver-“easy wedge”), and who was still only one back as Clarke started the home nine.
But then the leprechauns struck. They cursed his putter. How else does he toe an 18-inch putt on 11 that didn’t have a whisker of break? After that, he broke hard and jagged, dropping three more shots.
They were even there to watch over Clarke too, who drove all over the lot, but got fortuitous bounces and enjoyed favorable lies all day. Take the ridiculous break on 10, one that probably saved his tournament. Clarke was in the left-hand rough with a dicey, cuppy lie. Facing him were “the spectacles,” a pair of deep cross bunkers well short of the green, not really in play for the pros unless they get out of position but lethal should they get in them.
What does Clarke do? He skulls it. He hits a screaming wormburner, zipping along the ground directly toward perditionâ€¦
â€¦and there goes the ball, right up the one yard wide strip between the bunkers as if it had eyes, running all the way like a scalded cat to the green, safely in range of a two-putt. Do it again, Darren, I dare you! I double dare you!
Darren Clarke, I triple-dog-dare you! Go back to that spot and hit that squirrely shot again. See what happens.
It was a 1-in-10,000 break, but Clarke cashed it in. When it’s your week, the Golf Gods will let you know. As for Clarke, did you see the look on his face?
“Hello? Pet store? This is the cat. We seem to be missing our canary. Can you send over a replacement please? And a side of wing sauce?”
Well the pet store, the leprechauns, and the Golf Gods delivered a lot more: several kegs of Guinness, lots of Irish stew, a nation of 1.5 million in delirium, golf fans everywhere ecstatic, and one Claret Jug to help wash things down. Slante, indeed, Darren.
With his three shot victory, Clarke becomes perhaps the most popular winner to Americans outside of any American. We all love Clarke for his beer and cigars. We all respect Clarke for eating Tiger’s lunch, his own lunch, and then Tiger at the 2000 match play. And we all revere and esteem Clarke for his grace and class in troubled times. But we never expected this, a miraculous out of nowhere victory at the Open Championship – the de facto World Championship of Golf. But you know what? That tastes better than any Guinness going down.
So Clarke rides off again into the sunset, girl in one hand, Claret Jug in the other, the cheers of the World echoing all around, name firmly written in golf immortality, another wonderful story of triumph and redemption. Sometimes we in the media too often hold to the terrible mantra of “where heroes do not exist, it is necessary to invent them.” So it sure is nice when the heroes really do exist and all we have to do is just paint the picture for you. Which is just the way the Golf Gods – and in this case the leprechauns – intended all along.