Darren Clarke is about a decade removed from what looked as if it was going to be the prime of his career. In the late 90s and early 2000s, Clarke was a top-ranked player, won multiple World Golf Championship events and appeared on the verge of winning a major. The major didn’t come, and the last vivid memory most golf fans might have had of him on the golf course before this week was his performance in the 2006 Ryder Cup. Playing a little more than a month after he lost his wife to breast cancer Clarke received a spine tingling ovation on the first tee on Friday and played brilliantly in a European romp.
It was a weekend that added to Clarke’s popularity and it probably can’t be overstated how popular a win this will be among Clarke’s peers. If I was searching for an American comparison to Clarke, I might end up on Fred Couples. Popular with the galleries, effortless natural talent, powerful and brilliant ball-strikers and about everyone’s favorite person to get in the draw. Clarke has maintained an everyman persona through the years, puffing on cigarettes and finally eschewing the fitness trend. Clarke rode the cheers of the galleries, an occasional good kick, and 72 holes of great ball-striking to win the event he cherished most on his twentieth try.
It was a wild Sunday morning that devolved slowly into a Clarke victory lap. As the leaders were making the turn I was wondering if I was watching a historical performance from Phil Mickelson. Phil was clinical for 10 holes, playing them in 6-under, and it easily could have been 8-under. Considering the conditions, it appeared we might be seeing the kind of charge that Johnny Miller is constantly reminding people he made at Oakmont in ’73. While many will point to Phil’s short misses on the green killing his momentum, I imagine Clarke’s eagle at the seventh hole was equally deflating. Phil charges all the way to 5-under to finally tie for the lead only to immediately find himself two behind again. Clarke was playing so well that it must have felt like one mistake would doom any challengers and after Phil made that first mistake he never got close again.
It was a pretty solid performance for the Americans, though. The major championship drought has run to six, but the American players were the only ones offering Clarke much challenge. Rickie Fowler secured his first top-5 in a major despite struggling to make putts all week. Anthony Kim rose from the dead. And of course, Dustin Johnson found another way to shoot himself in the foot in a major. I don’t know how many more times Johnson can do this. You’d have to assume he’ll either eventually break through or else collapse under the weight of his misses. From the fairway at 14, to hit that ball out-of-bounds is almost inexplicable, and continues to raise questions about Johnson’s poise and focus under pressure. You listen to the guy’s interviews and wonder if he’s spacing out more than choking.
All the mistakes from the American players and anyone else in contention were all magnified, because of Clarke’s steady brilliance. He got a nice break missing a bunker on the 9th when Phil was applying the most pressure, but he was pretty much error-free on a very difficult course when it really mattered. His ball-striking was superior and on Sunday he was rock solid on the 3 and 4 footers that Phil and Co. could not make. The difficulty of the pin-placements and the severity of the golf course turned the Open into a ball-striking contest and Clarke was the man best suited for the job. It was a deserved victory and one that will probably be celebrated lustily throughout Europe.
Other Quick Takeaways:
The crowning of Rory McIlroy and the funerals held for the Phil Mickelson generation were probably both premature. Mickelson showed he’s still a factor (I’d make him the favorite at Atlanta AC), a golfer in his 40s took the trophy, and Rory probably isn’t to be ready to be the World number one quite yet.
Speaking of the World Number One, Luke Donald missing the cut is a huge disappointment. Especially his poor finish on Friday. It’s more proof that Tiger had everyone spoiled and validated the rankings. The rankings are far better at identifying the top-50 (in some order) than crowning a number 1 in an era of parity.
For all the complaints and worries about the course before the event, it appeared to be a proper and fair test. The small adjustments made since 2003 were apparently enough to quiet the complaints of the field.
People have differing opinions on what is the best major. About the only thing that seems to be consensus is that it is not the PGA. I’m not going to call the Open Championship the best, but what I appreciate the most is that it most often takes distance out of the equation. Obviously it always helps to have length, but the Open Championship courses seem to give the most options for players of varying length. The premium is usually on hitting it solid rather than just hitting it as far as you can.
All right, 3rd major of the year in the books. They’ll be plenty of pressure on the Americans to end the drought, they’ll be interest in whether Tiger will tee it up, and Chubby Chandler’s boys will be trying to make it 4 for 4. Until next month…