A decade after his career-defining achievement, Darren Clarke returns to Royal St. George’s admitting that he cannot fathom how he won the Claret Jug.
Clarke led from the second round to win by three shots from the American duo of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson to become the third Northern Ireland champion in the past six majors, as well as the oldest debut major-winner, and at 42 the oldest Open Champion, since Robert De Vicenzo in 1967. Now in returning to the UK, and for that matter Europe, for a first time since late 2019, the double Champions Tour winner spoke of the best memories in his career.
“This golf course offers me one of the best memories I’ve ever had in the game of golf,” said Clarke smiling.
“Now, would I prefer to play Royal Portrush every day or Royal St. George’s every day? I’d play Royal Portrush every day. Would I prefer to play St. Andrews or Royal St. George’s? I’d play St. Andrews every day. It may not be my favourite course, but this course has been very, very good to me.
“This is almost as tough a golf course as we play on The Open rota. Carnoustie when it was set up the year Paul Lawrie won, that was absolutely brutal, but Royal St. George’s is as tough a test as we play.
“The other Open venues I think give you more opportunities to score than what Royal St. George’s does. I’ve played the past three days, going around the golf course just thinking – how did I ever win here? – the course was playing that difficult in the breeze. But I did, so this will always be one of my favourite golf courses.”
Clarke headed into the 2011 Open not in the best of form having missed the cut at the Irish Open and then finished well down in just the three rounds of the rain-affected Scottish Open, though he did two months prior capture the European Tour’s Iberdrola Open in Spain. And if there was one good omen in arriving at Royal St. George’s, it was that he’d been allocated Greg Norman’s 1993 Open Championship winning locker.
“My mindset coming into the tournament, I played really well the week before we were in Castle Stuart playing the Scottish Open, and I played really well the first couple of days,” Clarke said.
“I think we had one day washed out. I think it might have been back to a three-round tournament. My last round (75 – author) I didn’t play particularly well, nor did I putt very well, so my mindset coming here was more frustration than anything else. For the people that know me, that’s a pretty common thing, was a common thing with me.
“And it was the same. My ball-striking was really, really good here. I spent a bit of time with Dr. Bob Rotella on the putting green on the Wednesday prior to the tournament and he cleared my head, because if things aren’t quite going well, I tend to go back into technique, and that’s not always the solution to scoring.
“Dr. Bob cleared my head a little bit, and I found a little bit of rhythm and a little bit of feel with my putting stroke, and all of a sudden it became a much easier game again.
“You know, that week, my whole attitude that week changed when I thought I could hole a couple of putts. I was very relaxed. I didn’t look at the leaderboard on Sunday until I walked off the 16th green, which was a nice thing to look at when you’ve got a four-shot lead. I didn’t know that at the time, but I was just trying to do the best that I could possibly do that day.
“My whole mindset was very accepting, because this golf course you can hit really good shots, but because of the undulation, like any links, but here maybe a little bit more, especially if it’s firm and fast, you can get some funky bounces, should we say. That’s part of playing links, but here sometimes it can get a little bit worse, so I was very prepared to accept it that week.”
Clarke had been runner-up in the 1997 Open, T7th in 2000 and shared third place in the 2001 Open. His only top-10s in the other three majors was a T8th in the 1998 Masters and a T9th at the 2000 PGA Championship. As a major championship contended that third week of July 2011, the then World No. 111th ranked Clarke was a real outsider, despite fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell having won the 2010 U.S. Open and Rory McIlroy teeing-up a month after capturing the 2011 U.S. Open.
“In terms of outsiders, Royal St. George’s has produced some of the greatest winners — we’ve had some of the greatest players and there’ve been a few surprises,” Clarke said.
“In terms of myself, I’ve been up there with numerous chances to win majors, all the different majors, and didn’t quite manage to do it. But at 42, would I have been somebody who you thought would’ve had a chance? Not particularly.
“I’d won a month before we came here in Spain so I knew I was playing well. My years of experience, I guess, helped me during the week, and I was ready to step across the line and win the biggest tournament that — the biggest and best tournament in the world and the one that I always wanted to win.”
What then unfolded in the hours after his win, as we all know, was a blur and it was still a blur when Clarke fronted the media the next morning. Ten years on, that’s all forgotten with Clarke summing-up his return so eloquently, even though he arrived into the Open media centre wearing shorts!
“Ten years is a long time and lots of Opens have come and gone,” he said. “But obviously I was the last winner here at Royal St. George’s. To come back as the guy who won it the last time is still a huge privilege.
“All I ever wanted from a young kid when I was practicing was to get my name on the Claret Jug, and I was able to do that here, so this is always going to be very special to me. And while it’s nice to come back to any golf course where you’ve played well before and especially won, to come back to an Open venue where I’ve played at and won before is even more special.”
Well said, Dazza!
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