Darren Clarke eyeing major success

SANDWICH, England -- He claims to have taken no motivation from the notable trophies earned by his countrymen, so perhaps it is only coincidence that Darren Clarke is finding success at the Open Championship.

In chronological terms, it is Clarke who should have captured a major championship, followed by Graeme McDowell and then Rory McIlroy.

It, of course, did not work out that way, with Clarke forging the way on the European Tour to be followed in Northern Ireland by McDowell and McIlroy.

But although McDowell won the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and McIlroy became golf's mini cult hero by winning the U.S. Open last month at Congressional by 8 strokes, Clarke was still struggling to find a game that has been spotty in recent years -- and the only player among the three without a major.

"Darren led them," agent Chubby Chandler said. "Darren was the one who set the bar, went over [to the United States]. G-Mac's followed him, and now Rory. It's a great thing. They all look up to him. You can imagine. Northern Ireland is such a small place, but they are so passionate."

So much so that Clarke skipped the BMW International Open in Germany last month to stay home and join the Rory celebration upon returning to Northern Ireland and his hometown of Holywood.

"There was a lot of people telling me it's been great that those two boys can do it, it's your turn now and blah, blah, blah," Clarke said Friday after his second 2-under-par 68 at Royal St. George's had him tied for the lead with Lucas Glover on top of a tightly-packed field. "But it was such a big deal to have Rory winning on the back of G-Mac as well. Everybody was over the moon with it. But there was certainly a feeling of them telling me to get my finger out."

Clarke, 42, does not believe that it is his turn, and he is quick to point out that he is only halfway through the 140th Open Championship. But he certainly has that Northern Ireland karma going for him.

A winner of 13 titles on the European Tour, including two World Golf Championship events, Clarke had struggled recently, going more than three years without a victory until winning in May at the Iberdrola Open -- a European Tour event played opposite the PGA Tour's Players Championship.

Although he has served as mentor and confidant to McDowell and McIlroy, Clarke claims their recent success has not spurred him this week.

"I've been personally delighted for both of them," he said. "We've got back-to-back U.S. Open champions from a little, small country like Northern Ireland. That's a massive achievement. You can't explain how big that actually is. We've got two wonderful ambassadors for Northern Ireland, and it's been great.

"So it hasn't really affected me apart from being proud that I'm from the same place as they are, and I may have given them a little bit of a helping hand here and there on the way up."

Clarke attributes his success here -- in the mix at a tournament in which he has twice finished in the top three -- to a couple of factors, one being his recent work with sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who is at the Open this week.

Because Rotella is based in the United States and Clarke rarely plays there anymore, face-to-face meetings have been rare. Their work centers on putting, and "he keeps things simple for me."

Another is his move back to Northern Ireland and especially the town of Portrush, where the renowned Royal Portrush has him playing one of the best links in the world. For years, Clarke lived in London.

The move has put him closer to the golf he likes to play and made family life better for his two sons.

Clarke lost his wife, Heather, to cancer in 2006, yet just more than a month later played for Europe in the Ryder Cup at the K Club outside of Dublin. His inspirational presence led to a European rout of the Americans, and Clarke somehow managed to win all three matches he played.

"Nothing could be more difficult than that particular week," he said. "I wouldn't say [the Open] is a breeze, but nothing would be more difficult than it was at the K Club."

From a pure golf standpoint, it doesn't hurt that Clarke is considered an excellent wind player, and the breeze is expected to pick up over the weekend.

"Darren is a fantastic ball striker," said McDowell, who missed the cut at Royal St. George's this week. "He's a great links player, and he's the type of player that can still win golf tournaments like he showed in Mallorca this year. He's obviously moved back to Portrush and spending a lot of time up there and spending a lot more time playing links golf. Great to see him playing well, and obviously I wish him all the best for the weekend."

It was McDowell who last month at Congressional said the notion of his and McIlroy's winning back-to-back U.S. Opens was like "holding the winning lottery ticket."

What would a victory for Clarke here -- a third in six majors for Northern Ireland -- mean?

"I think we'd have an influx of golfers moving to Northern Ireland," McDowell said.

One of them does not need golf as motivation to move -- Clarke's fiancée, Alison Campbell, was introduced to Clarke on a blind date set up by McDowell.

"She's been instrumental in getting my life back on track," said Clarke, who said a wedding day has yet to be set with the former Miss Northern Ireland.

So for Clarke, there is obviously more to all this camaraderie with his countrymen than just golf. They've been there as friends, too -- and vice versa.

Nonetheless, there might be something to glean from the exploits of McDowell and McIlroy, who have given the veteran golfer a major to try to match -- and some motivation if he needs it.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.