Popular Ulsterman rolls back the years
Royal St George’s was the venue for the 2011 Open Championship. In contrast to The Open’s last sun-drenched visit to Sandwich in 2003, the wind and rain ensured a tough challenge throughout the tournament.
There were two stars on a remarkable first day of the 140th Open Championship — 40-year-old veteran Thomas Bjorn of Denmark and 20-year-old English amateur Tom Lewis. Bjorn set the target score of 65, five under par, in some of the worst of the morning weather, only to be matched in the calmer afternoon conditions by Lewis who became the first amateur to hold a first round lead at The Open since Sir Michael Bonallack in 1968. Behind them a total of 35 players finished under par on a day of huge contrasts and mixed fortunes. Bjorn, who came so close to winning at St George’s in 2003, admitted that his game had been in tatters since the death of his father earlier this summer. In fact, the tall Dane only got into The Open on the Monday night when Fiji’s Vijay Singh pulled out through injury. Lewis completed his remarkable round in a calm and assured fashion in company with five-time Open champion and crowd favourite Tom Watson, out-scoring the man after whom he was named by seven shots.
At the end of the second day, 18 players were within three strokes of the joint leaders, Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland — hoping to emulate 1947 Champion Fred Daly, the only Ulsterman to have lifted the Claret Jug — and Lucas Glover, winner of the 2009 US Open. With the cut falling at three over par all qualifiers for the final two rounds are covered by only seven shots with 11 different nationalities represented among the leading 30 players. Clarke added a second 68 in the best conditions of a sunny morning to set a four under par target for the rest of the field to chase. Only Glover, with a 70, was up to the task. Overnight leader Thomas Bjorn dropped three shots in a row from the second and fought hard to rebuild a score. His 72 pulled him down into a share of third place with Chad Campbell of America, 2010 USPGA champion Martin Kaymer and ever-popular Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez.
Lewis needed nine shots more than his opening 65 but was still tied for 14th after posting a one under par total of 139 for a three shot lead over US Amateur Champion Peter Uihlein in the race to win the Silver Medal. A host of big names failed to make the cut, including double Open Champion Padraig Harrington, World No. 2 Lee Westwood, Justin Leonard, Graeme McDowell, Matteo Manassero, World No. 1 Luke Donald, John Daly, Geoff Ogilvy, Ian Poulter, Bernhard Langer, Ernie Els, Sandy Lyle, Matt Kuchar, Ben Curtis, the 2003 Champion at Royal St George’s, Mark O’Meara , David Duval and Todd Hamilton.
The third round was a day of two distinct periods. The driving rain and strong winds of the morning gave way to a warm, sunny, dry and calmer late afternoon and early evening. From a field of 71, only three players finished with sub-par rounds and one with level par. Some were as many as 13 strokes adrift. Rickie Fowler, a 22-year-old from California, played the round of the day. His remarkable two under par 68 brought him swiftly through the field from joint 19th into a tie for third place with Thomas Bjorn as the majority of those who played later in the day mostly failed to improve on their overnight scores.
One who did was his fellow American Dustin Johnson, a 27-year-old from South Carolina. He matched Fowler’s score of 68 late in the day to hold second place on his own. Clarke’s score of 69 kept him in the lead but it could have been so much better. He hit the ball solidly from tee to green but missed a handful of short putts. He opened with a birdie at the first and matched birdies and bogeys to reach the turn in level par 35. In the calmer conditions of the second nine he had a string of eight pars and a birdie at the 12th.
Clarke started the final round just one shot ahead of Johnson and three in front of Fowler but in the end cruised to victory in style. He opened his round with a birdie on the 417-yard par-4 second, dropped a shot at the treacherous 495-yard par-4 fourth but then settled his nerves with a perfect iron into 20-feet on the 564-yard par-5 seventh and then rolled in the eagle putt.
Ten consecutive pars were to follow until, with the job all but done, and with the £900,000 winner’s cheque almost in his grasp, he dropped shots at both the last two holes. That somewhat untidy, but utterly insignificant, finish left him with a 72-hole aggregate of five under par 275, three shots ahead of both Mickelson and Johnson and another stroke in front of the battling Thomas Bjorn, the only other man to finish under par.
Clarke, at the age of 42 years and 337 days, became the oldest player to win The Open Championship since Roberto de Vicenzo, who was 44 years and 93 days old when he won the title at Hoylake in 1967. Incredibly, the new champion also became the third golfer from Northern Ireland to win a Major in a glorious 13 months period for the province, joining Graeme McDowell (2010 US Open) and Rory McIlroy (2011 US Open) in the exclusive Major Champions club.