analysis After suffering a diet of disappointment over the years, the new Open champion was more than ready to get the celebration party started, reports Nick Rodger
In his 20th assault on the Claret Jug, the 42-year-old Northern Irishman, who shared second at the 1997 event at Royal Troon, finally got his hands on the most cherished piece of silverware in the game, becoming the oldest winner since Roberto de Vicenzo in 1967.
A level-par 70 for a five-under aggregate of 275 gave him a three-stroke victory over Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson as he completed a momentous triumvirate of successes for Northern Ireland following Rory McIlroy’s win in the US Open last month and Graeme McDowell’s victory in the same event in 2010. With another knees-up sure to roar into full swing, the livers of the good people of the province may not be able to take much more of this.
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Clarke, himself, was eager to get the party started. “I’m going on a diet tomorrow morning so I’m going to eat and drink as much as I want tonight,” smiled the burly Ulsterman, who even dished out free bubbly to the fraught members of the press. “But I think this will probably be a really bad week for me to start it. But it’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid to win the Open. I’ve done it and it feels incredible, just incredible.”
Celebration seemed just after Clarke triumphed in his 54th major appearance with a nerveless display of poise and passion. There was also politeness. When the crowd bellowed their approval at another Clarke cracker, he was quick to dampen the din out of respect for his playing partner Johnson. “The shouts and roars were wonderful but the reason I was telling the crowd to be quiet was that Dustin was going to play,” he said. “That’s golf etiquette, manners, how the game should be played. He’s trying to win the Open too.”
Clarke’s victory also spoke volumes for the perseverance of a man who has had his highs and lows.
“You know, bad times in golf are more frequent than good times,” he said. “I’ve always been pretty hard on myself when I fail because I don’t find it easy to accept. I’ve been utterly fed up with the game at times. But friends, family and Chubby [his manager] say get out there and keep going and going. That’s why I’m sitting here now with this.”
As strong, gusting winds and occasional, fearsome downpours punctuated the day’s play, the stage was set for an enthralling closing round and the first nine holes were jam-packed with activity, twists and turns, and excitement.
It was Mickelson, five behind overnight leader Clarke, who upped the ante considerably in the tough conditions and charged down his outward half like a member of the Seventh Cavalry to reach the turn in a purposeful 30.
The 41-year-old, whose only top-10 finish in 17 previous Open campaigns was third at Troon in 2004, revelled in the chase as he hunted down Clarke.
The world No.6 picked up birdies at the second, fourth and sixth and when he rolled in a 25-footer for an eagle three on the long seventh, the Californian had hauled himself level at the top as the leading duo pulled away from the pack.
Clarke was having none of it, however, and as the joust intensified, the Dungannon man made a telling jab when he also followed Mickelson’s eagle with an equally raking putt to move back into a two-stroke lead.
He enjoyed his luck of the Irish moment on the ninth when his low skidder out of the left rough just skipped over a bunker to nestle on the green. The importance of that stroke of fortune was underlined at almost the same moment as Mickelson missed a tiddler for his par on the 11th.
It was the beginning of the end for the American and, as the wheels began to wobble, they eventually flew off with a bogey at 13, a missed four-footer for birdie at 14 and further dropped shots at 15 and 16.
Amid all of this, Rickie Fowler, three behind after 54 holes and decked in his usual final-day bright orange, tried to make inroads but 13 straight pars, while excellent in the conditions, failed to get him moving.
Johnson, meanwhile, who was one off the lead heading into the final day, had slithered out of the limelight after early bogeys at the third and the sixth. With the focus of attention fixed firmly on the intriguing developments between Clarke and Mickelson, the 27-year-old then rallied to creep quietly back into the picture with a trio of birdies at the seventh, 10th and 12th.
Yet Johnson, who led last year’s US Open by three-shots before ballooning to a closing 82, suffered another calamitous moment as the pressure mounted.
Having split the fairway with his drive on the par-four 14th, the four-time PGA Tour winner then carved his approach over the out-of-bounds fence, recording a double-bogey seven to leave Clarke four shots ahead with just four to play.
With Mickelson in with a 278 after an eventful 68, the procession could begin. He could even afford the luxury of bogeys on 17 and 18 as he stuck a cheque for £900,000 in his back pocket.
As Mickelson and Johnson shared second, Thomas Bjorn, who threw away the 2003 Open at St George’s with a late collapse, closed with a 71 for 279 to take fourth while Fowler, Chad Campbell and Anthony Kim shared fifth on 280.
US Open champion McIlroy was brought down to earth with a share of 25th on 287 after a 73. He hinted he is falling out of love with the Open.
“I’m not a fan of golf tournaments where the outcome is predicted by the weather, it’s not my sort of golf,” he said. “My game is suited for every golf course and most conditions. I didn’t enjoy this but that’s the Open and that’s the way some years go.”
McIlroy was downbeat but at least one Northern Irishman was enjoying himself last night.