When Darren Clarke held aloft the Claret Jug on the 18th green at Royal St George’s in 2011, he fulfilled an ambition he had dreamed about since he was a child.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, he spent hours in front of the TV watching every shot of The Open as he marvelled at legends such as Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros and Jack Nicklaus.
It inspired him to practise every day and, though it may sound cliched, Clarke admits he was that youngster who used to stand on the green and pretend he had a putt to win The Open.
But it paid off when on his 20th attempt, he found himself in the position he had rehearsed so many times before - tapping in to claim the prize he wanted more than any other.
And now he’s come full circle, hitting the tee shot to kick-start The 148th Open at his beloved Royal Portrush, birdieing the first hole and then going onto shoot a level-par round.
It’s one of his greatest Open moments and adds another chapter to a thrilling love affair with the Claret Jug.
Clarke was hooked by golf’s oldest major from an early age and wanted nothing more than to lift the Claret Jug after taking the game up when he was just 11 years old.
“When The Open was on I didn’t want to miss a shot,” he said. “It was the reason why I went and practised every day, it was the reason why I would go out and hit balls here in 40/50mph winds and rain coming in.
“Not everybody reaches their dreams but unless you have them you are not going to push yourself to get there. The Open was always the one I wanted to win.”
He made his Open debut at Royal Birkdale in 1991 before experiencing a couple of near misses at Royal Troon in 1997 and Royal Lytham & St Annes in 2001.
Clarke had led the way after the first two rounds at Troon but eventually finished joint second behind Justin Leonard – and he later admitted his desire to win had clouded his judgement.
“It was the one tournament that I look forward to more than anything else all year, probably too much though because I wanted it so badly,” he said.
“I wanted it so much and because of that I let myself get drawn into situations where I would get annoyed with the odd bad bounce and then I would take that onto the next hole.” Darren Clarke
Proving the doubters wrong
While some had written off Clarke’s chances of ever ending his major drought, he always felt he could contend for The Open – and everything fell into place at Royal St George’s.
Before Clarke had even struck his first shot, he started the week in the Champion Golfer’s locker area after unknowingly being given Greg Norman’s locker when the two-time winner pulled out with injury.
“I walked into the locker room to my locker and there was a little note in there from Tom Watson’s caddy and it said, ‘Your locker is in the right place’,” he explained. “It was a bit inspiring that.”
Clarke opened up with a two-under 68 on day one before repeating the feat on the Friday to take the joint lead alongside American Lucas Glover on four-under going into the weekend.
He moved into the lead on his own on Saturday with a one-under 69 and showed no signs of wilting under the pressure as he set out to prove those who had dismissed his chances wrong.
“I came off the golf course on Saturday and I go and see the media and I’m sitting in there and one of the guys put his hand up, ‘Do you think you can win this?’ and I said ‘yes’.
“I said ‘Of course I think I can win this, this is what I practise for, this is what I play for’. And I think some of them were actually quite taken aback that a 42-year-old guy was leading The Open thinking that he could win it because a lot of them didn’t expect me to win.”
Calm under pressure
With only a one-shot cushion, Clarke had every right to feel the nerves walking to the first tee on Sunday as he contemplated his potential maiden major victory.
And while he admits letting his mind briefly wander in the build-up to the final round, Clarke refused to let anything get to him – remaining completely focused on every single shot.
Even a charge from Phil Mickelson was not enough to dislodge Clarke at the top of the leaderboard, with the American going around the front nine in 30 after starting the day five shots back.
“I was unbelievably calm, as the round progressed nothing really bothered me,” he said. “I heard the roars from what Phil was doing, he was making eagles and birdies for fun, but they were of no relevance.”
A Mickelson birdie on the 10th closed the gap to just one, but he was unable to maintain the pace as Clarke also saw off the challenge of Dustin Johnson and Thomas Bjorn.
By the time the man from Dungannon reached the last two holes, he held a four-stroke lead over the rest of the field and could afford to bogey both and still seal victory.
“To walk down the last hole on The Open with a lead like that, knowing before I got onto the green that basically that I’ve won the biggest and best major in the world was very special,” he said.
Emotions running high
Not only had Clarke defied the odds and fulfilled his boyhood dream by winning The Open at Sandwich, he became the first home Champion Golfer for 12 years in the process.
He was also the oldest Open winner since Roberto de Vicenzo in 1967 and he said the scale of his achievement hit him when the crowds roared his name after sinking the winning putt.
The victory also came five years after the death of his first wife Heather from breast cancer in 2006, with Clarke paying an emotional tribute to mother of his two sons.
“It’s one of the biggest moments of my career and it would have been very remiss of me not to mention Heather,” said Clarke.
The emotions continued to run high when he got home to his sons, having been wary of tempting fate by bringing them to the course for the final round.
He added: “Did I ever think I was going to get my hands on the Claret Jug? Did I know I was going to? No. Did I hope I was going to? Yes. That’s why I kept on going, kept on going.
“You know to have dreams, to have things that you think are unattainable, if you give up on them, what’s left? I am immensely proud my name is on that Claret Jug.”
‘It couldn’t have been better’
Clarke’s role in Royal Portrush’s return to The Open rota was a big one and it was only fitting that he got to stand on the opening tee and strike the first shot.
He found the fairway before fittingly making birdie, undoubtedly one of the finer moments of his career.
“It was more emotional than I thought it was going to be, to be honest. I knew the golf course was going to be fabulous,” he said.
“I think you guys know better than me, after having spoken to all the players and stuff, they're really enjoying the golf course. It is a proper, fair test of golf. The scores are going to show that, not just today but at the end of the week.
“It was one of those things that I was very proud to be standing on that first tee hitting the first shot.”