Darren Clarke: A diamond in the rough
At 42, Darren Clarke is the new Open champion. But, as our reporter discovers, life hasn't always been tee to green for a golfer who refuses to do it any other way but his own
• Darren Clarke poses with the Claret Jug on the 18th green of Royal St George's. Picture: Ian Rutherford
A TRADITION that gives a tantalising glimpse of the personality of those who win one of golf's most prestigious tourneys is the claiming of the Claret Jug. When, four years ago, Padraig Harrington laid his hands on the Open Championship trophy, a remark made by his young son, Paddy, won the hearts of the nation and showed the Irishman to be a family man. "Daddy," the three-year-old said as his father handed him the trophy, "Can we put ladybirds in it?"
On Sunday, when Darren Clarke began his year-long stewardship of the 140-year-old trophy, he warned golf's governing body of his intention to fill it with something far less innocent. "I'm fond of a little beverage," he said, smiling. "And with the R&A's permission, there might be lots of nice Irish black stuff in this trophy this evening."
Few would have bet against the Northern Irishman from staying true to his word – indeed, when he emerged yesterday morning at Sandwich to attend a press conference, it was evident he had been celebrating his first major title with aplomb.
"I have not been to bed yet," said the new champion of The Open. "I probably won't get any sleep until tomorrow at some stage. You have to enjoy it while you can. I had quite a few pints and quite a few glasses of red wine and it all continued until about 30 minutes ago. It's been a very good night."
Yet he made clear that the revelry had not extended to filling the Claret Jug with a pint or two of one of Ireland's most famous exports.
"I'm a bit of a traditionalist, I feel a bit funny about putting stuff in the Claret Jug that shouldn't be in there, so I'm little bit more reserved as to what I should do," he said, before adding with a glint in his eye. "That may not be the case as the week goes by!"
In an era when prodigious young sportsmen seem to go through life untroubled, maintaining unflinching dietary and fitness regimes which, though pleasing to sponsors, tend to render them indistinguishable from one another in the eyes of the public, Clarke is a notable exception.
He has seldom been shy with regards his affection for Guinness and cigars, vices which have become unacceptable in modern sport, and has struggled at times to control his weight.
He has also had to endure the tragedy of losing his wife, Heather, to breast cancer five years ago, while looking after the couple's two young sons, Tyrone, 12, and Conor, 10. Yet in middle age, he has defied the odds to reach the peak of his career. No-one before had ever played more than 15 Open tournaments before coming first. Clarke, however, achieved it on his 20th try at the ripe age of 42, making him the oldest first-time major-championship winner since Roberto de Vicenzo in 1967, who was 44. In The Open alone, only three champions have been older than Clarke – Vicenzo, Harry Vardon and Old Tom Morris.
Only a week ago, he was ranked 111th in the world, and had not posted a Top 10 finish in a major even for a decade. He did not even qualify for the three majors that preceded The Open.
His victory, however, wins him an automatic place in the prestigious event until 2030, and has led Ladbrokes to slash his odds of winning the Sports Personality of the Year award from 100/1 to 5/4, the same price as the US Open champion, Rory McIlroy – who, like Clarke is from Northern Ireland .
Alex Donohue, a spokesman for Ladbrokes, says: "Even at this stage we can't see anyone else getting close. It's now a toss-up between the two countrymen with the USPGA looking vital."
As Clarke, who is from Dungannon, made clear yesterday, after going through hard times, the success of his first major was made all the more sweet. "I definitely appreciate an awful lot more what I've achieved," he reflected. "Ten years ago, I did take an awful lot of things for granted." Since Heather's passing, Clarke has sought to control his a lcohol intake and installed a gym at his home to keep fit.
Alison Campbell, his fiance, was at Royal St George's to cheer him on during Sunday's emotional finale. He met Campbell – who runs a model agency boss and is a former Miss Northern Ireland – in November 2009 through Graeme McDowell, and they have inseparable ever since.
Yet he hasn't completely turned his back on the lifestyle of old. Instead, he has taken all things in moderation, an aspect of his character which ensures him a fond public perception.
Dean Robertson, a former Italian Open champion who works as a high-performance golf coach at the University of Stirling, has played alongside Clarke several times.
He believes that while Clarke's fondness for a drink may impact on the length of his career, few should underestimate his sheer will to win and "immense" ball control talents.
He told The Scotsman: "Darren has been through the mill, especially after his wife passed away, but he has never doubted his belief in himself as a player and his ability to win the Open. "He's probably the best ball-striker around, and he demonstrated his immense ability to control the ball in really difficult conditions."
Mr Robertson added: "People talk about his drinking and weight, and what he may not have is the longevity or stamina of other players, but I am sure that in the week of the Open he was living appropriately, even if he now has a very sore head.
"It shows that life is all about balance. He, more than anyone, has had reality hit home in a very cruel way, but his victory is a victory for Northern Ireland and the game of golf itself. He's the people's champion." As for the future, it seems debate will continue over whether Clarke will claims another of golf's biggest prizes. For the man himself, still flush with success, such concerns can wait.
The rest of this week, undoubtedly, will involve more parties, and more alcohol. When his compatriot McIlroy won the US Open, Clarke pulled out of an event in Munich to join the celebrations. Now he will be the guest of honour, and arrangements are being made for a bash to better them all.
Yet even in his tired and emotional state at yesterday's press conference, a touching truth emerged when Clarke was asked about how the material benefits of his victory would change his life.
His Open win saw him pick up a cheque for 900,000, and he is set to enjoy an additional windfall of 2m thanks to a sponsorship deal he struck in 2005 with Sports Direct tycoon Mike Ashley, guaranteeing him the payout if he won a major.
Further endorsement opportunities and sponsorships are likely to come his way, but after years of living and playing by his rules, Clarke hinted that the biggest moment of career may herald a few changes.
Asked how he intended to spend his fortune, he replied: "I actually don't have anything in mind because I've been there, done all that before. I've had the opportunity to buy whatever I want to buy and all that.
"This time, I'm a little bit older and a little bit more sensible. If I can put a little bit more aside for my boys' future, then that's what I'll do, as opposed to looking after myself."
Not that his beloved boys would wish to see their father become a bore and keep the loot in a savings account. Asked what Conor said when he told him about his win, Clarke revealed: "He wanted to know what he could spend all the money on!"
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