Through the Wind and Rain: Five Things We Learned While Darren Clarke Won the Open

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Jim Neveau, The Sports Bank

Of all the events in golf, there are few that can match the history and the worldwide significance that the Open Championship has. The rota of courses that the Championship uses features some of the most legendary sites in the golf world, and the wild weather that typically accompanies the playing of the Open has made it into an annual rite of passage for the world’s best players.

The Masters is about Augusta National, and the US Open is about keeping your ball in the fairway, but the Open is about being able to create golf shots from all varieties, while at the same time dealing with the discerning eyes of British golf fans and the pressure that those expectations bring with them.

Several players had good opportunities to make a run at the Claret Jug on Sunday, but in the end, it was Darren Clarke, a 42-year old from Northern Ireland who persevered through the elements and the pressure of the moment to seize the trophy at Royal St. George’s. He put on a ball-striking clinic all weekend, navigating the course’s treacherous fairways and playing a simple game that resulted in a slew of pars and precious few big numbers. The win was Clarke’s first major victory, and brought to a close a truly turbulent time in his life.

Darren Clarke (zrim/Flickr)

So what exactly did this championship teach us? What will the defining legacy of the 2011 Open be when looked back upon in the years to come? Here are five lessons that can be taken away from Royal St. George’s:

Darren Clarke Showed Us the True Meaning of Perseverance 

Clarke may have made some history on Sunday, but the most important facet of his victory was the personal triumph that it represented for him. Back in 2006, Clarke lost his wife Heather after a two-year battle with breast cancer. She passed away the day before his 38th birthday, and he took six weeks off to be with his two children, and to cope with his loss.

After that absence, Clarke had a tremendous showing at the Ryder Cup at the K Club in Ireland, picking up three points for Europe in their victory over the US. After some up-and-down times since, this Open Championship not only provides his career with a defining moment, but it also gives him a springboard to the next chapter, where he’ll marry his fiance and no longer have to worry about being saddled with the “never won a major” label.

Clarke’s win rivals Dale Earnhardt Sr’s victory at Daytona after 20 tries (it took Clarke 20 times to win the Open), but it is much more of a watershed moment than just winning a golf tournament.

Phil Mickelson Still Can’t Close on Major Championship Sundays 

Phil made a remarkable run at the title on Sunday, going as far as five-under par at one point. Unfortunately for Phil, his short stick deserted him at a key moment again, and he flailed away en route to a second place finish. The finish may have represented only the second-career top ten in the Open for Phil, but it once again showed that Mickelson tends to overthink things when the pressure gets intense. He always tends to talk things over at length with his caddy, but down the stretch on Sunday he was discussing every shot for a long period of time, and his swing simply vanished toward the end of the round. Phil needs to work on using his trademark feel and gut instinct more to his advantage late in major championships if he is going to add any more to his resume.

Dustin Johnson Is the Heir to Phil’s Crown of Choking

Johnson is an immensely talented player, but he has never been able to put everything together to win on a Sunday at a major. In the 2010 US Open, he went into the final round with a three-shot lead, but he shot an 82 to finish well off the pace at Pebble Beach. In the PGA Championship two months later, he was in contention until the very end, when he committed a penalty on the 72nd hole to take himself out of a playoff.

Phil Mickelson (JimEpler/Flickr)

On Sunday, Johnson was within two shots after some really good-ball striking when he took his second shot from the middle of the fairway on the par-5 14th hole. As one of the longest-hitters on tour, he had a good shot at reaching the green in two to put pressure on Clarke, but instead he blocked his shot out to the right, hitting it out of bounds and clearing the way for an easy Clarke victory.

As a Twitter user so eloquently put it, Johnson is now three-quarters of the way to the Grand Slump: choking in all four majors. In all seriousness, Johnson has some great skill on the golf course, but he has to maintain his focus and try his best to overcome the demons that are now swirling around him.

The Old Guys Still Have Game 

Several wiley veterans made their presence felt in Sandwich over the weekend, and really showed that the Open Championship isn’t one where youth and massive length are pre-requisites to victory. Outside of the 42-year old Clarke winning the title, you also had Davis Love III finishing in a tie for 9th as he makes a push to make the Ryder Cup team he will captain next year at Medinah. Tom Lehman, who won the Open in 1996, and Tom Watson, who has five titles to his credit and also nearly won in 2009 at Turnberry, both finished tied for 22nd at six-over par.

It was a remarkable sight to see those three play so well, and hopefully we’ll see them tee it up again at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s next season.

Golf Doesn’t Need Tiger to Be Compelling

If the Open Championship taught us only one thing in 2011, it’s that golf does not necessarily need Tiger Woods lurking in the weeds on a Sunday to be compelling. You had Clarke’s incredible story, Mickelson and Johnson’s choke jobs, and guys like Thomas Bjorn looking to exorcise demons from their past, and all of those things taken as a whole equaled a superb weekend of golf. The Atlanta Athletic Club will have a lot to live up to in the drama department when the PGA Championship starts in a couple of weeks.

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