Clarke returns Claret Jug; will his game return too?

Darren Clarke speaks during a press conference at Royal Lytham and St Annes in Lytham on Monday.

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- Maybe now that Darren Clarke has relinquished the old Claret Jug he can get on with the rest of his career. Maybe now he can start playing decent golf instead of the dross he’s been serving up for much of the last 12 months.

Clarke has been conspicuous by his absence since his surprise win at Royal St. George’s 12 months ago. In fact, Clarke went 10 months before making a cut in a full-field tournament. Last September, he made the cut in the Omega European Masters in Switzerland, and three weeks ago made the cut in the Irish Open at Royal Portrush, his home course.

Clarke’s world ranking rose 81 places to 30th last year after his surprise Open Championship win. He’s now 84th.

“It’s been a much better year off the golf course than on the golf course,” Clarke said about his year as Open Champion.

He’s not the first to win a major and struggle to find the form that allowed him to become a major champion. David Duval hasn’t come close to the heights he scaled in 2001 when he won the last Open at Royal Lytham.

Paul Lawrie is only getting his game back 12 years after winning The Open at Carnoustie. Stewart Cink defeated Tom Watson in a playoff at Turnberry three years ago and hasn’t been heard from since.

Graeme McDowell said he felt he couldn’t get his game back until his year as 2010 U.S. Open Champion came to an end. The Northern Irishman was literally counting the days until he gave the trophy back.

Clarke handed the old Claret Jug back to R&A chief executive Peter Dawson today.

“Maybe now that I’ve given the jug back, maybe I’ll get back to playing the way I can.”

The Northern Irishman might have been a surprise winner last year given he was 42 and seemingly in the autumn of his career. However, there is no denying he always possessed the talent to win one of the game’s marquee events. He just seemed to let his colossal temper hold him back.

It’s no surprise then that once Clarke made his major breakthrough, he wanted more.

“I don’t know if it’s because of winning the Open Championship or not, but I’ve certainly fallen into a little bit of a trap of trying to play better,” Clarke said. “I’ve been trying too hard as opposed to just going out and playing. I’ve been getting into the mentality that I’ve got to go out and play like the Open Champion, instead of just playing the way I played in the first place.

“That’s the nature of the game. You get success at the highest level, and it just creates some more. I want to win again. There is none better than the Open Championship but I want to win the big tournaments. I just pushed myself too hard.”

There’s also the achievement factor. Many players have talked in the past of reaching their goals and then wondering: What's next? Duval said he thought winning a major would feel greater than it did. He was disappointed it didn’t mean more to him.

England’s David Howell blames a near six-year slump on achieving his lifelong dream of playing on a winning Ryder Cup team, which he did in 2004 and 2006. He found it hard to re-motivate himself after achieving his goal.

Clarke can relate to both Duval and Howell.

“From the day that I lifted a club and started playing, all I ever wanted to do was win the Open Championship. It took me quite some time to reflect upon it and see where I wanted to go after I’d won it. I struggled with that for quite some time.”

Maybe the Claret Jug is part chalice part curse. Maybe now that he’s handed the chalice back, the curse that goes with being Open champion will be lifted and Clarke can get on with the rest of his career.

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