SANDWICH, England — Having grown up on the links of Northern Ireland, Darren Clarke took to British Open golf like a kite to wind. He had made 15 of 19 cuts at the Open coming into this week. He looks forward to deplorable weather. Ski caps? Please. Clarke wears a visor even if it's raining sideways. But Clarke's career seemed to peak a decade ago. At 42, surely his best years were behind him.
Phil Mickelson took to the British Open like a cat to water. He was 85 over par with only a single top-10 finish, a third in 2004.
The 140th British Open at Royal St. George's featured two unlikely veterans trading blows during an epic front nine, a brief run by Dustin Johnson, and ultimately Clarke's insistent reminder that steady beats stylish. He made a series of key putts, enjoyed a few kind bounces and never flinched to shoot 70 for a five-under total and a three-shot victory over Mickelson and Johnson.
"All worth it, most definitely," Clarke said as he enjoyed a celebratory pint of Guinness. "To sit here and talk in front of you guys with this trophy, being the Open champion, just means the world to me."
Thomas Bjorn, the hard-luck loser at the 2003 Open at St. George's, who only got into the field as an alternate when Vijay Singh withdrew, shot 71 to finish fourth at one under. Chad Campbell (69), Anthony Kim (70) and Rickie Fowler (72) tied for fifth place at even par, five back.
Clarke said he received text messages prior to Sunday's final round not just from countryman Rory McIlroy but also from Tiger Woods, who offered a few "bits of advice" that Clarke would not expound on. His first major championship victory came in his 54th major start, and moved him into the top 30 in the world, from 111th. He bought champagne for the press.
"Darren always said this was his best chance of winning a major," said Clarke's caddie, John Mulrooney. "At 42 he didn't think he'd have too many more chances. We came here for a practice round a couple of weeks ago before the French [Open], and it went really well. When we got to St. George's we were given [1993 St. George's Open champion] Greg Norman's locker, and we always felt it was meant to be this week."
Mickelson played some of the best golf of his life on the front nine, one-putting six of his first seven greens, including a long eagle putt on the par-5 seventh hole. That got him to five under, tied with Clarke, and Mickelson made the turn in 30.
"Oh, man, that was some of the most fun I've had, competitively," Mickelson said. "You know, it was one of those times when you're not thinking birdie, and things were just happening."
Mickelson and Clarke know each other through a cruel common denominator, breast cancer. When Clarke played for Europe in the 2006 Ryder Cup in Ireland, it was only six weeks after his wife, Heather, died from the disease. In a week when the players' wives are featured prominently, Clarke was alone. For the opening and closing ceremonies, Amy Mickelson stood between Clarke and Phil, holding hands with both of them.
It was a gesture Clarke remembers vividly, and it had more significance than anybody knew. Amy Mickelson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, and after a rough few years she is doing well.
"He was one of the first people that called us," Phil Mickelson said of Clarke. "He's been through this and couldn't have been a better person to talk to. We talked for a few hours a couple of times."
Although they both can look frail over short putts, Clarke and Mickelson don't have much in common as players. While Mickelson's high-wire act can pay big dividends, Clarke's strength is his unwavering ball-striking, which can unnerve anyone. He beat Woods, 4-and-3, in a 36-hole final at the 2000 WGC-Accenture Match Play. On Saturday at St. George's, he shot 69 despite racking up 34 putts. "I couldn't have hit it any better," he said.
Clarke found his range with the putter Sunday, answering Mickelson's genius with a long eagle putt of his own on the seventh. Sensing that his friend and adversary wouldn't soon back down, Mickelson began to press, which led to trouble. "When I had to try and make some birdies is when I ended up making a few mistakes," Mickelson said.
Just as he came back to earth after his front-nine 30 in the final round of the 2009 Masters, Mickelson faltered again on the back nine at St. George's. After making birdie on the 10th to get to six under, one back, he missed a par putt from inside three feet on the 11th hole.
"Just a stupid mistake," Mickelson said. "There was nothing to it."
Short putts had bedeviled Mickelson all week, and this miss seemed to derail him. He bogeyed 13, missed a seven-foot birdie try on the par-5 14th, and bogeyed 15 from a fairway pot bunker. Just like that, he'd gone from six to three under, from a shot behind to four behind.
Johnson, who started the day four under, bogeyed No. 3 and No. 6, both par 3s, to fall to two under. Birdies on 7, 10 and 12 got him to five under and back in the game, but he hit his second shot out of bounds to double the par-5 14th, all but ending his chances.
"I'm two back and the rest of the holes coming in are pretty tough," said Johnson, defending his decision to go for the green in two. "Out here you don't really get too many opportunities to make birdie, so it was definitely a go situation."
A BBC commentator gravely intoned, "It's beyond belief that Dustin Johnson would do that," but it wasn't unbelievable at all. It had always seemed a distinct possibility that Johnson would crack mentally as he did at the 2010 U.S. Open and PGA Championship.
All week, Clarke looked like the best player from tee to green.
"If he can putt decently today," Edoardo Molinari (78 Sunday, 17-over total) said before the leaders began, "I think he's going to win."
After a scratchy drive off the first, Clarke reached the green in two but was miles from the pin. His first putt missed badly, leaving him about 12 feet for par, and he found the back of the cup. He not only helped himself with calm nerves on the greens, he got a good bounce or two, most notably with his low-running second shot on the par-4 ninth hole, which bounded over a menacing fairway bunker and onto the green.
Clarke admitted he was lucky to miss most of the horrid weather that tormented players Saturday, and he got the better end of the draw Thursday and Friday. Was it Norman's lucky locker or the luck of the Irish? Coming on the heels of U.S. Open victories by Graeme McDowell in 2010 and Rory McIlroy this year, Clarke's win is the third in the last six majors, over 13 months, by players from Northern Ireland.
Last week, at a party hosted by their agent, Chubby Chandler, McIlroy told Clarke it was time to "get his thumb out" and win a major. Clarke has always been an enigmatic talent, a player whose appetites for the finer things — luxury cars, imported cigars — seemed to take precedence over his golf. When he beat Woods at the 2000 Accenture, the runner-up didn't mince words. "Darren has the ability to obviously play great golf," Woods said. "It's just dependent on how dedicated he is to his work ethic."
His wife was first diagnosed in December 2001, though, and Clarke's game slid down his priority list. Heather fought the disease, and Darren won the 2003 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, but she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer soon after. She died at 39.
Clarke began to piece his life back together, rededicating himself to golf and winning twice in 2008. His sons, Tyrone and Conor, began to play avidly, and Clarke moved from outside London back to Portrush for their schooling. He's also closer to his fiancÃ©e, Alison Campbell, the owner of a Belfast modeling agency. McDowell set them up.
The wind blew slightly harder Sunday than it had the day before, but in the same direction. Mickelson's cap flew off as he was hitting his tee shot to the 169-yard sixth hole. He still birdied. Clarke, too, thrived. He doesn't worry about rain and wind; he begs for it.
He was stoic while reading his speech on the 18th green, but in the media room later he began to well up with tears when he was asked about the long journey he's had, the wonderful and terrible times.
"In terms of what's going through my heart," Clarke said, "there's obviously somebody who is watching down from up above there, and I know she'd be very proud of me. She'd probably be saying, 'I told you so.' But I think she'd be more proud of my two boys and them at home watching more than anything else. It's been a long journey to get here."