[Author’s Note – originally posted in 2011 on my now-defunct web site]
When I last visited Scotland in 2006, it seemed that virtually everyone I met wanted to talk about the untimely death of the wife of Northern Ireland golfer Darren Clarke. The news was particularly sad as Brenda Clarke was a lovely young woman who battled breast cancer for several years before succumbing at the age of 39. As for Darren Clarke – well, Clarkie seemed to be the type of fellow who would be just as comfortable downing a pint with his mates as he would be pounding a tight draw down the middle of the fairway. His “Everyman” quality seemed to touch most of the golf world, particularly those in Europe and the UK.
And Clarkie has always had some game – while one seldom heard him mentioned in that curious discussion of “Best Player Never to HaveWon a Major” (Colin Montgomery and Sergio Garcia have seemed to lead that particular topic), he could be a dangerous competitor, particularly in matchplay competition. He once took down Tiger Woods – an at-the-peak-of-his-powersTiger Woods – 4&3 in the finals of the 2000 Accenture World Match Play tournament; even more remarkably, Woods smiled broadly in congratulating Clarke in defeat; even the sport’s most churlish competitor seemed to enjoy Clark’s company despite getting whacked.
But as one might expect, the loss of a loved one weighed heavily on Clarke; he did come back to play in the Ryder Cup in 2006 after taking a 6 week leave from golf, but over the past few years his play had been spotty – his putting, never his long suit, was particularly vexing – and watched as his young countrymen, Graham McDowell and the precocious Rory McElroy rose in the world rankings, while Darren sank to 111th prior to this past week’s Open Championship at Royal St George’s.
The Open has grown to be my favorite tournament to watch – The Masters, while having the potential for exciting finishes due to Augusta National’s famed back 9, does not have the strongest field, The U.S. Open is frequently a death march (except for maybe this year, where it felt more like the Kemper Open), and the PGA is often non-descript. The Open, on the other hand, is always played on a links course unlike any we see in America, and the unpredictable course contours and climate changes call for an altogether different sort of shot-making; controlling trajectory in the wind and bumping the ball along the firm, fast fairways (which often have equal pace as do the greens) become the skills of choice. And unlike American courses, finding a fairway bunker more often than not results in a lost stroke.
And Darren Clarke, who grew up playing regularly on one of the greatest links courses in the world (Royal Portrush – and, please, R&A, please find a way to bring the Open to that marvelous venue), is a master at navigating an Open-style course. His swing typically features a low finish,crucial to maintaining a boring ball trajectory that holds up well in windy conditions, and he has the acumen to play the low, running shots that work so well around undulating green complexes.
So when Phil Mickelson made his front 9 charge on Sunday (and that was truly a delight to watch; only a lipped out birdie attempt on #8kept him from shooting 29), Clarke simply went about his business, matching Lefty’s front 9 eagle with one of his own, and while Phil resumed missing 2 to4 foot par putts – a now-familiar and distressing aspect of his M.O. these days, Darren was rock-solid over every putt that mattered.
And when Dustin Johnson – who had entered the final day tied with Clarkie, and who struck the ball well pretty much all day – inexplicably sailed his lay-up shot out of bounds on 14, that for all intents decided theOpen.
The ABC commentators, particularly Mike Tirico and CurtisStrange (who was never a huge fan of the Open), seemed to be intent on describing Clarke’s final round as being the result of fortunate circumstance (i.e.,luck), and to be fair, he did benefit from several odd bounces and seemed to be less affected by the flash storms that ran through the course on Sunday. But such is the nature of golf – particularly sea-side links golf. And if anyone in golf deserves a break or two, it’s Darren Clarke.