SANDWICH, England – Darren Clarke is an enigma – he’s an underachiever and an overachiever.
With a one-shot lead over Dustin Johnson heading into the final round of the Open Championship, he has the chance banish that label forever.
Clarke’s prodigious talent practically dictates he should have added his name to the major list long before he reached his 42nd birthday last August. And the flip side? His colossal temper probably should have forced him out of the game years ago.
Clarke has 13 European Tour wins but has hardly featured in the majors. In 53 major championships, he has just six top 10s, three of them coming in this championship in his 19 appearances.
“I’ve failed 19 times to lift the Claret Jug, and tomorrow I have an opportunity,” Clarke said. “But it’s just an opportunity. There’s a long way to go in this championship.”
Clarke’s closest tilt at Open glory came 14 years ago when he finished second. He trailed Jesper Parnevik by two shots heading into the final round of the 1997 Open Championship at Royal Troon. His challenge ended early when he shanked his tee shot onto the beach at the second hole. Justin Leonard ran away with the championship after holing everything in the final round.
Clarke lost by three. He’s had two other top 10s in the Open since. He was 7th in 2000 and third in 2001. Since then he has been practically invisible. In the last five years he has gone missed cut, missed cut, failed to qualify, T52 and T44.
Indeed, he’s been so invisible he’s had to take a back seat to Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, watching them win the last two U.S. Opens, a tournament he should have arguably won by this stage in his career.
Of course, Clarke has had extenuating circumstances. His wife Heather died of cancer five years ago.
Many people might have written Clarke off over the last few years, but not the man himself. That much was obvious when he won the Iberdrola Open in May.
“Did I ever doubt I was going to get back into this position? No. Did I ever expect to be in this position? No.
“Did I hope to be? Yes.”
Clarke probably would have won The Open by now if he’d been born with the temperament of close friend Lee Westwood. Clarke is no stranger to colossal fits of temper. You usually don’t have to speak to Clarke to discern his mood. It’s usually obvious by the thunder in his face.
“I haven’t always been able to stay patient,” he admitted.
He did that in the third round, even though he could have been forgiven for having one of his famous “head offs” after missing at least five makeable birdie putts.
“Tee to green I was very good. On the green wasn’t so good.”
Clarke first met McIlroy when the reigning U.S. Open winner was just a boy. Clarke took the young lad under his wing and mentored him. So the inevitable question came up – has Rory’s success given Clarke a new lease of life?
“He’s half my age. In terms of inspiring me; it’s a different era.”
Clarke has worked hard with sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella this week. He had to. A closing 75 in the Scottish Open wasn’t exactly the best preparation for playing in the Open Championship. He also took a lesson out of the notebook of former Ryder Cup player Ken Brown.
“Ken Brown once said ‘don’t let your attitude affect your swing,’ and my attitude has been very good this week.”
The Northern Irishman got the better end of the draw. He only suffered about 45 minutes of the worst weather, before the wind abated and the rain stopped. By the time he walked off the course with the lead, you wouldn’t have known there had been any inclement weather on the Kent coastline.
How bad was the weather. “It was brutal,” said Paul Lawrie, the 1999 champion.
Of course, Clarke is used to bad weather. He hails from Portrush, and learned his game on the links of Royal Portrush, venue for the 1951 Open Championship. He used that links experience to good effect in fashioning his 69.
Now he needs to use all his talent and keep his mental demons at bay to finally realize his potential.