Darren Clarke holds steady to finally land the big one

SANDWICH, England,  (Reuters) – Darren Clarke’s long  wait for a first major title ended when he fought off a pack of  Americans to claim a magnificent three-shot victory at a  windswept British Open yesterday.

Playing in the championship for the 20th time, the burly  42-year-old Northern Irishman tamed the treacherous Royal St  George’s links to protect his one-shot overnight lead.

He could even afford two bogies at the finish as he tapped  in at the 18th for a masterful final-round 70 to win from  playing partner Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson.

After being presented with the Claret Jug, a beaming Clarke  said he would probably fill it with Ireland’s most-famous black  ale, before looking to the sky and remembering his wife Heather  who died in 2006.

“For some of you who may know there is somebody up there  watching on as well,” he said to rapturous applause.

Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland kisses the Claret Jug after winning the British Open golf championship at Royal St George’s in Sandwich, southern England yesterday. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

Clarke’s 20 attempts to win the British Open beats the  record of Nick Price who landed the world’s oldest major at the  15th time of asking in 2004.

Former Ryder Cup hero Clarke had not even made the top 10 at  one of golf’s four majors for 10 years and had arrived at  Sandwich almost unnoticed amid the pre-tournament hype over  young compatriot, U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy.

Four vintage rounds later in some of the most testing  conditions seen at the Open, the cigar-loving Briton strolled  off with the 900,000-pound ($1,450,653.600) winner’s cheque and  a two-million-pound bonus from sportswear giant Mike Ashley who  supplied Clarke’s kit without a regular fee but promised the  bonus five years ago.

Leading a major after three rounds for the first time in his  22-year professional career, Clarke calmed any early nerves by  draining a long par putt at the first and despite a burst of  brilliant shot-making from Mickelson he never wavered.

“It is just incredible. I’m a bit speechless. I played okay  today, I did what I had to do and the last few holes when I was  far ahead I just tried not do anything stupid,” he said.

“I’ve been very calm all week, I won six weeks ago and the  more you put yourself in winning positions the more comfortable  you get. I was very comfortable with my game this week.

“I could hear the roars going up for Phil Mickelson on the  way round but I was hitting some shots and doing okay too.”

 TORRENTIAL RAIN  
Maintaining the tee-to-green brilliance he showed on  Saturday, he was a model of calm as he played nerve-less golf  down the stretch before taking the acclaim of massed ranks  surrounding the 18th green.

It had been that way all the way round.
With thousands of fans supporting him, Clarke sank a long  birdie putt at the par-four second. Huge roars boomed around the  wind-blasted links course as his ball disappeared into the cup  to give him a three-shot lead.

After parring the third he dropped his first shot of the day  at the fourth after an errant tee shot ended in the rough and he  failed to hole a tricky putt for par.

With news of Mickelson’s charge filtering through, Clarke  had sniffs of birdies at five and six before he matched the  American’s earlier eagle at the seventh – holing a 25-footer to  re-establish himself as the stand-alone leader at seven under as  torrential rain began to fall.

Two more pars took him to the turn in control and with the  finish line in sight, albeit with some nerve-jangling tests  still to come as the wind refused to abate.

A birdie putt lipped out at the 10th and he then got up and  down at the par-three 11th after his tee shot had trickled into  a steep greenside bunker.

With Mickelson fading, Clarke’s nearest rival was now  playing partner Johnson who picked up two shots after the turn  to keep up the pressure.

However, Johnson smashed his approach shot out of bounds on  the brutish par-five 14th on the way to a double bogey seven to  give Clarke a little more margin for error and when the big man  speared his third shot to the heart of the green the famous old  Claret Jug was his to lose.
Clarke drove into trouble at the 15th but had a slice of  luck when his second shot just missed a bunker and rolled up  towards the front of the green.

Not even a dropped shot at the 17th, where an eight-foot par  putt slid past to cut his lead over Johnson to two going down  the last, could disturb Clarke’s composure.

Johnson made a mess of his tee shot and when Clarke boomed  his down the 18th fairway he was able to walk the 459 yards to  the green soaking up the applause and could even smile when his  par putt slid wide.  ($1 = 0.620 British Pounds)

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