Darren Clarke celebrated his Open victory with a laid-back barbecue that lasted all night

Darren Clarke celebrated his Open victory with a laid-back barbecue that lasted all night

Darren Clarke won his first career major title at the Open Championship.
Robert Beck/SI

Darren Clarke is holding court in the garden, Guinness in hand. It’s late Sunday night and he still hasn’t had time to change out of the golf clothes he’s been wearing all day. The house rented by his management company for the week of the Open is bustling with well-wishers. Clarke’s mother and father, Hetty and Godfrey, are sitting beneath a canopy at a picnic table. They are being interviewed for a documentary by BBC Northern Ireland. Manager Chubby Chandler is caressing a continually topped up glass of claret. And the claret jug is being passed around for photo opportunities.

This isn’t a wild booze-up; it’s a laid-back celebratory barbecue for family, friends, members of Team Clarke, and golf writers who have chronicled Clarke’s colorful career of glory and despair. There are burgers and rolls, a curry boiling in a huge pot in the kitchen, plastic buckets filled with ice and beer, and bottles of wine lined up on a wooden trestle table. The frequent sound of champagne corks popping punctuates the laughter and constant chinking of glasses as toasts are raised to the champion golfer of year. This has been a party Clarke has been waiting to throw all his life. He is living the dream and loving it.

But just in case he still can’t quite believe what he has done, the giant yellow scoreboard by the 18th green is lit up at Royal St George’s at the bottom of the garden and across a field from Clarke’s rental home. It’s too far away to make out the names but Clarke knows his sits on top with Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson tied second. The 42-year-old started the final round leading the Open but was the only British or Irish golfer in the top 16. He was being chased down by the cream of America’s golfers: 10 of them looking to overturn the big man from Dungannon. He beat them all with the golfing genius he has always possessed but has all too often been defeated by his self-confessed short fuse. “That wasn’t my first rodeo. I’ve beaten the Americans before,” Clarke said laughing, referring to the Ryder Cup.

This time he had help from the greatest American player of them all. He and Chandler said texts from Tiger Woods played a key role in keeping Clarke’s game and head together to claim his much deserved and much overdo major championship victory. And Chandler revealed that every note and text left for Clarke by Mick Finnegan, one of his two sports psychologists, was signed off with the no nonsense motivational acronym PTAFW-Prove Them All F—ing Wrong. Clarke followed the doctor’s advice.

But maybe fate played a helping hand, too. Clarke turned up at Royal St George’s to find he had been allocated a locker in the area reserved for Open champions. He was given Greg Norman’s, who won at Sandwich in 1993, next door to Tom Watson and Justin Leonard. “What the hell am I doing in here?” he thought to himself. “It must be a mistake.” It was no mistake. The R&A had decided to pay him a compliment. He justified their faith. Strange things always seem to happen to champions.

The affable Clarke has been called the “People’s Champion” with his pint and cigarette, and anti-athletic frame. But he is first to admit that in the past he has sometimes behaved like a bear with a sore head, keeping an infamous black book filled with the names of those he believes have crossed him. His nickname among friends (and his twitter feed name) is the Prince of Darkness.

“There was a period when I gave myself airs and graces and I was a bit of a horrible prat,” he said. ‘I’d have a bad round and I wouldn’t speak to you guys. I’d be rude and it wasn’t right. But I hope I’ve learned from my mistakes.”

The Clarke of late has been more of a cuddly teddy bear. He is a changed man since the tragedy of his wife Heather passing away in 2006. Clarke has moved back to Portrush from London to find contentment and calmness again with fiancée Alison Campbell, a former Miss Northern Ireland. He said he has moved on from his Boys’ Toys lifestyle, too.

“You have to be careful with that sort of stuff where I live now,” Clarke said, “because otherwise you come across as the flash w—-er who lives on top of the hill.”

Clarke said moving home also helped him prepare better for the filthy weather that battered the 140th Open Championship. He has been playing Portrush three time a week in all weathers.

“The only difference when I’m at home is that we’d probably have three pints before we went out and about seven when we came back in again,” he said.

Clarke is one of the most popular figures on practice ranges across Europe and the United States. Davis Love waited at Royal St. George’s to congratulate Clarke with tears in his eyes, and Clarke said Mickelson whispered some lovely private comments to him at the presentation ceremony. Clarke spared a thought for best mate Lee Westwood who is still searching for that elusive first major title.

“I feel for Lee, he has been there so many times,” Clarke said. “The game is fickle. It hammers you, it hammers you and then it gives you something. Right now it’s tough on Lee. Rory winning and then me winning. That will be hard on him. But if I were a gambling man, I would have a substantial bet on Lee winning the USPGA Championship in Atlanta. I hope he does.”

Clarke hasn’t even had time for a hangover yet. He turned up for a press conference at Royal St George’s at 9 a.m. on Monday with bleary eye, having yet to place head on pillow. And the party rumbles on: a monumental homecoming at Royal Portrush on Tuesday, a sponsor’s day in London on Wednesday. Then the first tournament where he will be announced as Open champion will be next week at, of all tournaments, the Irish Open alongside Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington.

“I’ll probably be hungover all week,” Clarke said.

Clarke’s victory looks to have inspired the biggest ongoing party since Led Zeppelin went on the rampage across the United States in 1977. Just as Northern Ireland has sobered up after Rory McIlroy, U.S. Open champion, along comes Clarke to star in Hangover 2.