It was eight years ago that Darren Clarke finally won the Claret Jug that could have been his as long ago as 1997. Alex Perry found him in the mood to reminisce ahead of the Open returning to his native Portrush

“I’m very fortunate my name is on the Claret Jug,” Darren Clarke says as he leans back in his chair and sips on his latte.

We’re at Machrihanish Dunes on Scotland’s Kintyre peninsula. We’re both tired. Clarke is suffering from jetlag having barely arrived back at his home in Portrush from Japan, where he was playing in a Champions Tour event, before he was whisked the few miles over the Irish Sea by helicopter. I decide not to complain about my eight-hour drive from my home in Yorkshire.

Clarke must have taken part in a thousand interviews about his Open win in the eight years that have passed since he held off the American juggernauts Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson at Royal St George’s, but he reminisces with that same glint in his eye like it was yesterday.

Perhaps fortunate is the right word. Clarke had more than his fair share of major top 10s during his career purple patch between 1997 and 2001, but never again came close until a decade later. Historically, Clarke wasn’t exactly a shock winner of golf’s oldest major and it certainly wasn’t on the same level as Todd Hamilton or Ben Curtis, but at the time no one gave him a chance.  

But there was something about the way he was that week in Kent, almost at peace with himself, I suggest.

“I was,” he confirms. “I’d won a couple of months before and I played really well. The previous week at the Scottish Open I’d hit the ball fantastic for the first couple of days, so I went down to St George’s knowing I was hitting it great but I wasn’t making any putts at all, which was frustrating.

“I played practice rounds with Rory [McIlroy] and Lee [Westwood] and on the greens I was just picking up. On the Wednesday I saw [renowned psychologist] Bob Rotella and he said, ‘Right Darren, just start hitting some putts with your lob wedge.’ All of a sudden my mind cleared and that was it. I was on the range hitting draws and fades with the driver off the deck so I knew my swing was pretty good.

“But that doesn’t make any difference unless your head is in the right place. I became very serene and very calm with what I was doing. I was exactly the same way when I won my WGCs, nothing was going to bother me. Rotella told me: ‘Darren, if you’re unflappable then you’re unstoppable.’”

Darren Clarke

There is an infamous photograph of Clarke in his press conference the day after his Open win where he is, to put it politely, a bit the worse for wear. And who would begrudge him the celebration to end all celebrations. This was, after all, the one he craved, and at a time when he thought his chance had long gone.

“I didn’t go to bed,” he admits, confirming what we already suspected. “But I never drank anything out of the Claret Jug while it was in my possession. I just had too much respect to drink anything out of it. I drank lots of stuff sitting around it, but never anything out of it.

“If I could pick one of out of all of them, I would pick the Open. It’s the oldest, the biggest, and the best. And I would like to have won more of them.

“It was always my best shot because of my affinity with links golf, playing in Ireland, playing all the great links golf courses.

“My first US Open was 1994 at Oakmont. That opened the eyes to that type of golf and I didn’t really think that that was going to fit me. It required an awful lot of patience, with which I was never gifted an awful lot. At the PGA [Championship] I had chances as they were set up more like a regular tournament, and I used to love Augusta and I had chances to win there.”

Darren Clarke

So what was going through his mind as he walked down 18, knowing he was about to finally lift the trophy he’d spent his entire life dreaming of getting his hands on?

“It’s going to be a long night,” he jokes.

“No, I don’t know. I hit a really nice drive down the fairway and there was an out of bounds stake about 30 yards over the back of the green. I picked that as my target and hit my 5-iron. I pured it and it never left this white post from about 200 yards. As soon as I hit it I knew it was tournament over, it was done. That was the percentage play with the lead that I had.

“Then I was thinking – how many putts have I got to win? I was trying to figure it out – four, five, six, whatever, and I couldn’t quite come to the right number of putts I had. About 20 yards from the green I said to myself ‘you have enough putts just don’t worry about it’.

“Walking up there I had a sense of this is all I’ve ever wanted to do. This is the one that I wanted more than anything else.”

Since his victory, Clarke’s biggest contribution to the Open is being heavily involved in getting it back to his home course of Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951.

“It’s going to be incredible,” he gushes. “It took a lot of commitment and bravery from Peter Dawson from the R&A, Arlene Foster our first minister at the time and Wilma Erskine, the secretary at Portrush. They worked tirelessly to make it happen.

“They had a little bit of Rory, G-Mac (Graeme McDowell) and myself chirping at them to take it on. The R&A came over and watched how successful the Irish Open was at Portrush in 2012 and I think that swayed them to make a commitment to bring it over.

“If you take a look at where Northern Ireland was 20 years ago to where it is now it’s a completely different country. Twenty years ago, to host the Open Championship at Royal Portrush, you would have said ‘no way, don’t be ridiculous, you should be committed if you think it’s going to be there’.

“Portrush is a Harry Colt masterpiece, a course which you’ll hear rave reviews from the players because it’s fair. It’s tough, but if you play well you’ll score well. If you try and take Portrush on and hit driver everywhere, there’s no point unpacking, you won’t need your week’s quota of clothing. Portrush does not work that way.

“Like any links course it needs a little bit of wind and a bit of inclement weather to play the way that it should. And if we get that it will be a huge success – it’s going to be a huge success but it will be an even bigger success.”

And how will his preparation differ to any other Open?

“I have a week off before the Open,” Clarke, who is plying his trade on the PGA Champions Tour these days, says. “So I’ll be in Portrush and I’ll be playing the golf course every day – not that I need to because I know it inside out.

“But we moved from London back to Northern Ireland after my wife passed away [in 2006] and I began practising at Royal Portrush, so I got used to playing links golf again. I hadn’t played links golf for that long because I’d been away the whole time, so I need to get playing a lot of it. You always know what to expect but unless you’re hitting off the turf you need to get used to it again, so the whole week before I’ll be getting used to it.

“I have a couple of American players asking to play with me the week before because they want to pick my brains. Of course I’ll help them, but I’ll be playing every day just getting myself used to it.

“Knowing the course is one thing, and it can only be a benefit, but you need to play pretty decent as well. I know where to hit it and where not to hit it, so the worse weather we get the better for me.

“The people that know the golf course best would be G-Mac and myself.”

Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell

His eyes light up as he remembers his good friend booking his ticket for Portrush at the Canadian Open.

“Brilliant! The thought of him not playing in the Open is just… wow. The R&A don’t do special invites, they just don’t, so what he did in Canada was just brilliant.

“It’s going to be just an unbelievable week.”

Darren Clarke’s Open record

  • 1991: T64
  • 1992: MC
  • 1993: T39
  • 1994: T38
  • 1995: T31
  • 1996: T11
  • 1997: T2
  • 1998: MC
  • 1999: T30
  • 2000: T7
  • 2001: T3
  • 2002: T37
  • 2003: T59
  • 2004: T11
  • 2005: T15
  • 2006: MC
  • 2007: MC
  • 2008: DNP
  • 2009: T52
  • 2010: T44
  • 2011: 1
  • 2012: MC
  • 2013: T21
  • 2014: T26
  • 2015: MC
  • 2016: T30
  • 2017: MC
  • 2018: MC

The best to never win a major?

Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood

It’s the ultimate question golf fans ask each other over a pint in the pub: Who is the best player to never win a major?

For many years Clarke’s name was high on the list, but now he’s no longer eligible who would he put at the top? 

“Lee Westwood, without a doubt” he replies before the question has finished leaving my mouth and I feign surprise.

“The way he has played, his ball striking and everything over the years. He had a couple of chances where Phil [Mickelson] hit miraculous shots at Augusta [to win the 2010 Masters where Westwood finished second] and at Turnberry, when Tom Watson was beaten by Stewart Cink, Lee played great and hit it into that bunker on 18, hit a great shot onto the green thinking he had it going and then three putted. 

“He had his chances but it just didn’t quite go his way.”

Will he ever win one?

“Never say never,” comes the reply with a knowing grin.

Clarke on Machrihanish Dunes

Darren Clarke

After our chat we headed out for 18 holes over the stunning Machrihanish Dunes, David McLay Kidd’s 2009 masterpiece set adjacent to the 143-year-old Machrihanish Golf Club.

Like me, Clarke was playing the Dunes for the first time, so when better to pick his brains than over a pint of Dublin’s finest stout?

“If you want to play proper links golf that isn’t manicured but the greens are immaculate, then this is perfect,” he says.

Indeed, fairways are mown but they’re largely untouched because on this SSSI site the use of fertiliser and the instillation of drainage and irrigation systems are forbidden. That makes it a golf experience in as natural a setting as you can imagine.

“The way the golf course is shaped into the the natural land is wonderful,” Clarke adds. “This is golf as it was intended to be played hundreds of years ago.” 

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