A major tournament – contested on the best links I’ve played, and won by the gutsiest golfer I know. There could scarcely have been a better result to this year’s Open Championship.
Amongst the courses on the British Open rota, Royal St George’s is the toughest and biggest one out there. And those are qualifications which could apply perfectly to Darren Clarke, as well.
It’s 30 years since I first played at Sandwich. Looking back across all those rounds, the links has offered pain and elation in almost equal measure.
Suffering through the times when the difficulty of the test simply wore me down. And joy when I found a way to hack a string of pars together somewhere, or when the elements really descended and I finished the course in less disarray than expected.
The more I’ve played at Royal St George’s, the more I’ve realised that no one conquers this course. The key to a good score at Sandwich isn’t so much the great shots that you hit, but rather the bad ones you don’t.
And perhaps there was no single outstanding shot which won this year’s Open. Darren Clarke won through scoring solidly through tough conditions and by avoiding the bad shots which ended his rivals’ chances.
On a windy day, there’s not a shot on the course which appears remotely straightforward.
The first hole might look simple enough, but as a 450-yard par four, it’s not exactly easy. With three deep bunkers just short of the green, and a downhill green beyond, most second shots are destined for the back of the green.
Clarke found himself there on Sunday. Leaving his monster first putt short, somehow he drained a scarily fast second from 15 feet. And in that one moment, the pathway to an Open Championship was laid.
Level par on the seventh tee, Clarke boomed a long drive over the sandhills, and then found the green with his second and the cup for an eagle. A two shot lead with eleven holes remaining.
That’s where the fireworks ended. Clarke found no more birdies, and bogeyed the final two holes. Yet he still won by three shots. So how was that possible?
If Mickelson, Johnson, or Bjorn had closed out in pars, the result could have been different. When they fell away, Clarke was the last man left standing.
Royal St George’s is famous for the severity of its finish. The 15th and 18th are two of the toughest holes anywhere, while the 16th and 17th are nearly as hard. But in truth, the battle with the course is often over long before then. There are no easy holes after the seventh, and far too many places to ruin a good score.
Darren Clarke won the Open by not missing a sloping three footer on the 11th like Phil Mickelson. By not slashing a long iron out of bounds on the 14th like Dustin Johnson. And by not letting bogeys leak onto his card like Thomas Bjorn.
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192. Ending the streak – America wins the 2008 Ryder Cup
66. A dream from Detroit – 2004 Ryder Cup
99. One over Strath