Royal St George’s was the venue for Darren Clarke’s finest hour in 2011, but his hugely popular triumph owed much to the countless hours he had spent at another Open venue.
A prolific winner of tournaments throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, Clarke twice came close to glory in golf’s original Championship during this period, tying for second at Royal Troon in 1997 and third at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 2001.
Although it would ultimately take the Northern Irishman 20 attempts before he was able to secure the Claret Jug, at a time when many had written off his hopes of becoming a major champion, he never once doubted his ability to achieve the feat.
This was in large part down to his vast experience of links golf and specifically Royal Portrush, a course that has had an enduring impact on Clarke ever since he first set foot on the hallowed links around 40 years ago.
Clarke’s initial introduction to golf came at Dungannon Golf Club, a picturesque parkland course in Mid Ulster.
“My dad started playing and I started caddying for him,” Clarke explained. After caddying for him for a couple of years I thought, I should have a go at this. This looks quite like a bit of fun, so I took up the game when I was 11.”
The young Clarke was immediately drawn to his new sport, so much so that he would take any possible opportunity to get onto the course.
“I just wanted to play as much as I could,” he said. “I couldn’t put the clubs down. I wanted to play all the time.
“I’d be training for rugby at school three or four times a week and then playing in a match on the Saturday morning and then as soon as it was finished I’d go straight on to the golf course.
“Even if you could only get out and play two or three holes in winter time, someone would collect me and run me out to play.”
Dungannon will always be a special place for Clarke, and he has since gone on to play a significant role in course design at the club, where the signature par-3 ninth hole bears his name.
Yet while he first learned how to play at Dungannon, a crucial stage of Clarke’s development occurred when he started to make weekly trips north to experience the joys of links golf.
“From when I was about 12 or 13, when I started really getting into it, my dad or friends from Dungannon would drive up to Portrush on a Friday afternoon,” said Clarke, speaking from the town that hosted The Open for a second time in 2019.
“There were cheaper green fees on a Friday after 4pm so we’d drive up and I just had an affinity to links as soon as I got here and started playing every Friday.
“You go from parkland to playing on a links golf course, it’s a completely different format of the game. It’s totally, totally different and whilst it was difficult enough at Dungannon, this was even more difficult.
“This was the ultimate test in my opinion. This is where the game all started. Links golf was and is the ultimate test of golf and I was just so lucky and fortunate that my dad and other friends would come up here every Friday with me.
“That was when I started getting my first taste of proper links golf and, because of that, obviously watching The Open it was even more special because I was starting to gather a little bit of information, a little bit of an idea of how to play a links and how difficult it was to see these guys hitting some of the shots they were hitting.
“It was like, ‘Wow, how did they do that?’ And that just got me even more interested.”
If Clarke’s childhood experiences on links provided a level of comfort that helped him to those top-three finishes at The Open in 1997 and 2001, there is no doubt his decision to return home to Northern Ireland played a pivotal role in his subsequent success at Royal St George’s.
After living in London for 13 years, Clarke opted to relocate to Portrush with his two sons in the summer of 2010.
“If I hadn’t moved home, I don’t think I’d have won the Claret Jug,” said Clarke in his Chronicles of a Champion Golfer film.
In the same interview, he added: “Being back here in Portrush, playing it day in day out and going out to practice on days when you wouldn’t let the dogs out (was vital).
“I’ve got my own tee down here at the back of the range and I’d go there and it was blowing a gale. I’d have five layers of clothes on me, it was so cold, and I’d still be hitting balls. I’d be knocking shots, hitting draws, little fades, because if I can practice in that then it doesn’t make any difference what the weather throws at me.”
That preparation certainly came in handy in 2011, as the field for The 140th Open encountered plenty of cool, windy and wet weather throughout the week.
Only four players finished the Championship under par and it was perhaps no coincidence that three of that quartet – Clarke, Phil Mickelson and Thomas Bjorn – were players in their forties boasting vast experience.
“I think the strongest part of my game has probably been my ability to control my ball flight,” said Clarke. “And I learned that from coming up here to Royal Portrush. I learned that very early.
“To be able to knock down a shot, to keep it out of the wind and use the ground, is an art that I think is disappearing. You see all these young kids coming out nowadays and they hit the ball so far and through the air, but then all of a sudden you get some difficult conditions on a links course and they can get a little bit lost.
“They don’t know what to do because they don’t play on it. They don’t practice it because our jobs nowadays are perfectly manicured golf courses all over the world, for the most part in good conditions. But all of a sudden you get thrown a links golf course with wind and rain coming in and then you’ve got to actually work the ball and use the ground and that’s what The Open promotes.
“So I think because of coming up to Portrush and learning that at a young age, that would probably be the strongest part of my game.
“It’s the ultimate test of a player’s ability, patience and maintaining equilibrium on the golf course, because is golf fair? You’d have a lot of people probably say no and I’d probably be one of them because everything you put into it, you don’t get back out.
“Then you throw in some bad weather and the bounces you’re going to get, are they fair? Sometimes they can be, but a lot of the times they can’t be.
“It’s totally, totally different, but you know, that’s links golf and that’s why it’s so challenging and that’s why it is so good. It’s a different way of seeing the game. It’s a different way of playing the game.”
Clarke’s love of links and renewed familiarity with Royal Portrush ensured he was high on confidence at Royal St George’s.
And motivation had never been a problem for the veteran, even though he had gone a decade without a top-10 finish in a major prior to his inspiring success in 2011.
“If you don’t aspire to anything, where are you going to go? You have to aspire to something,” said Clarke.
“Not everybody reaches their dreams but unless you have them you’re not going to push yourself to get there.
“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. And that’s why I kept on going, kept on going.
“And to have dreams, to have things that at some stage you may think are unattainable, if you give up on them, what’s left?
“In my opinion, you have to have a goal somewhere of something that you really, really want to achieve, whether that be a position within business, within sport, within anything, any walk of life.
“I do think it’s really important to have one ultimate goal and certainly on my behalf The Open was my ultimate goal. It’s the one on my calendar that I look forward to more than anything else.”
Such is Clarke’s reverence for The Open, he did not drink out of the Claret Jug in the year it was in his possession.
"Of all the people, yes! I didn’t. I thought about it and I just have so much respect for that trophy that I didn’t want to demean it any way by drinking out of it,” he added.
“I had lots of very nice bottles of claret wine sitting beside it but I never actually had one drop of anything out of the Claret Jug. As strange as that may sound and as much as you don’t believe me, I never had one drink of anything out of the Claret Jug because I just didn’t think it was the right thing to do. That’s how much I hold The Open Championship up there.
"For me it is the ultimate in our sport. There is nothing above The Open Championship.”
To read more of our Chronicles Unseen articles and watch the full Chronicles of a Champion Golfer films, visit www.theopen.com/chronicles.