More than Rory or G-Mac, Darren Clarke was perfect lead-off man for a N. Irish major

Ian Rutherford/USA TODAY Sports

More than Rory or G-Mac, Darren Clarke was perfect lead-off man for a N. Irish major

2019 British Open

More than Rory or G-Mac, Darren Clarke was perfect lead-off man for a N. Irish major

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PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — It was at the hangover hour of 6:35 a.m. that Darren Clarke stepped to the tee at Royal Portrush and got the 148th Open Championship underway, providing a country that has witnessed an excess of days for commiserating a welcome day for celebrating.

Northern Ireland is a place preoccupied with symbolism, so Clarke was an apt choice to lead off the first major played here since Harry Truman was in the White House. Not because the 50-year-old is a member of Royal Portrush, nor because he owns a home on the hill overlooking the storied old links. But because more than his major-winning compatriots Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, Clarke embodies so many of the traits common in this discordant province.

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He’s an unruffled survivor who forged a normal life in an abnormal society. He was born a few weeks before what is commonly accepted as the outbreak of the ‘Troubles,’ when police attacked a civil rights march in Derry, 30 miles west of Portrush. He spent his childhood in the darkest era of our squalid little war. Relatives died, and Clarke himself came perilously close to being one of the almost 4,000 fatalities. As a teenager, he worked setting up the bar at the Inn on the Park, a pub near his home in Dungannon. One night staff received a phone call warning them to evacuate. Soon after they fled, a bomb demolished the bar. Clarke had been working beside the explosive device for hours.

He’s shouldered tragedy and soldiered on, something an unfair number of his countrymen can relate to. Today wasn’t even the most emotionally charged tee shot Clarke has hit in a golf tournament in Ireland. At the 2006 Ryder Cup, he received a rapturous reception on the first tee at the K Club near Dublin, but that cheer was one born of commiseration. His wife Heather had died of cancer six weeks earlier. Against that experience, the crucible of Thursday morning at Royal Portrush probably didn’t seem all that daunting.

Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland plays the opening tee shot off the first tee during the first round of the 148th Open Championship held on the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush Golf Club on July 18, 2019 in Portrush. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

He has that cheerful, hail-fellow-well-met public demeanor familiar in these parts, evident in a Falstaffian fondness for wine, food and Ferraris. Earlier this week, the girthsome golfer joked that he might mimic Tiger Woods and work out before his dawn tee time. Did he? “I had to go through the gym to get into the laundry area to get something, so I swiftly walked past that and had my bacon sandwich the wife had made me,” he admitted after his round.

There’s also that Northern Irish contrarianism, a propensity for churlishness that has fractured friendships over the years. But then, people here are accustomed to perceptions that don’t jibe with the reality. That mattered not a whit today though. Clarke was one of their own, and was cheered as such as he navigated his way around the Dunluce course. He felt it too. “To see all the people coming here, to see how much they put their arms around it, it’s fabulous,” he said earnestly.

For a time the cagey veteran gave them something to cheer about. He was leading at three-under par, exhibiting all the guile and shotmaking that won him the Claret Jug in 2011 at the age of 42 on his 20th Open appearance. It slipped away some at the end though, as promising things often have in Northern Ireland. He posted an eminently respectable 71, even par. The late stumbles grieved the competitor, but mattered little to the spectators. This wasn’t a day for commiserating on how Clarke finished this opening round of the 148th Open. It was about celebrating the fact that it was played at all.

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