The last time The Open was held at Royal St George’s in 2011, Darren Clarke produced a wonderful performance to win The 140th Open in his 20th appearance at golf’s original major.
However, the Northern Irishman was certainly not among the favourites prior to the event. Despite Clarke’s excellent pedigree at The Open and the fact his game is well-suited to links courses, the Ulsterman arrived at Royal St George’s as a 125-1 outsider having slipped outside of the world's top 100.
As Lee Westwood and Dr. Bob Rotella illustrate, the change in fortunes Clarke experienced between the practice rounds in 2011 and the Championship itself was truly the stuff of fairytale.
'I didn't picture him winning that one'
Westwood, the world number two at the time and one of the pre-event favourites, was always sure of Clarke’s ability to play links golf and of his potential to win The Open. Yet after playing with his friend early in the week at Sandwich, Westwood was decidedly less sure about Clarke's chances this particular year.
“Growing up on a links golf course like Royal Portrush,” Westwood said, “Darren is a fantastic striker of the golf ball. He’s great at turning the ball into the wind and holding it up, and he uses the wind really well.
“The size of him, it takes some wind to blow him off balance! I always felt it was just a matter of time until he won an Open Championship. His game is made for it really.
“But at Royal St George’s, I didn’t picture him winning that one, because I played some practice rounds with him earlier in the week, and one of them he actually walked off, because he’d had enough.
“We’d actually got so far out that we had to play our way in. That was the shortest way of getting in, by playing in, and he decided not to play and just walk in. And then the next day he just went out with a putter and no clubs and walked round and putted on a few greens.
“So if you asked me at the start of the week is he going to win it? I’d have said, 'no, he’s more likely to finish last'. And sure enough he’s holding the trophy on Sunday night.”
If Clarke’s practice-round performances didn’t seem up to scratch, neither did his form. He had won the Iberdrola Open three months prior to The Open, but he did not finish inside the top 40 in any of his next five events before arriving at Royal St George’s.
“If you asked me at the start of the week is he going to win it? I’d have said 'no, he’s more likely to finish last'.” Lee Westwood
Change in fortunes
Nevertheless, with some putting work on the eve of the Championship, Clarke felt he was in a great mental space.
The man who helped him achieve that mindset, highly renowned sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella, was delighted with what transpired from Thursday through to Sunday.
After acknowledging Clarke's initial preparations did not inspire confidence, Rotella said: “By the time the tournament started, he got in a great place and he really got in a great place Sunday morning.
“I remember he and Dustin (Johnson) were the last two on the putting green, and Darren was just in a fabulous state of mind that morning, I was thrilled to see him be that happy and relaxed.
“He walked to me on the ropes, gave me a hug and said something to the effect of, ‘Doc, as long as I have fun, and stay unconscious and just react to my targets, I’m going to be a happy guy whether I win or lose today’. And when he walked away, I remember going: ‘Fantastic, that is just what I wanted to hear!’ I told him at the party that night. I said: ‘Darren, that was music to my ears.'
“If he had given me an embrace and then said, ‘I’m 42 years old and this might be my last chance to win The Open, if I don’t I’ll probably never win one’, I would have thought, ‘oh gosh, we didn’t get him where we needed to get him’.
“So that was important, because I didn’t know that he was going to win, but I knew he was going to play really good.”
As he had done across the first three days, Clarke went on to play brilliantly on Sunday, and his assured performance ensured he finally lifted the Claret Jug, 20 years after his first Open appearance.
His win delighted many and provided another reminder of just how quickly golfing fortunes can change.