Darren Clarke returns in major triumph

SANDWICH, England -- Seemingly past his prime, destined to take his place behind countrymen he had mentored, Darren Clarke was on nobody's list to continue Northern Ireland's remarkable run in major championships.

The lover of fine wine, cigars and fast cars who five years ago lost his wife to cancer and last contended in a major a decade ago emerged as the Champion Golfer of the Year, an unlikely holder of the Claret Jug who nonetheless played the links of Royal St. George's as if he were destined to claim one of golf's top prizes.

Clarke, 42, came to England ranked outside of the top 100 in the world, a one-time conqueror of Tiger Woods regarded more as a future European Ryder Cup captain than a player on the world stage.

"The hardest thing when you're a golfer is when you're labeled an underachiever," said Clarke's longtime agent, Andrew "Chubby" Chandler. "And he was always labeled an underachiever.

"And now he's not."

Now he's got a major championship, the 12th consecutive different player to win one going back to 2008 and the fourth player of Irish heritage to win one during that span.

He did it in his 20th attempt at the Open, the most tries it has taken any champion to win his first Claret Jug. And he became the first player since Mark O'Meara in 1998 to win his first major title after turning 40.

At this point it is difficult to quantify what is more impressive: three majors out of the past six for players from Northern Ireland, a tiny country of 1.7 million people? Or three straight majors this year for clients of Chandler, who runs International Sports Management?

On Northern Ireland, which has now seen Graeme McDowell win the 2010 U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy win the 2011 U.S. Open and Clarke's victory Sunday, the newest champion said: "We have fantastic golf courses, we have fantastic facilities, but to have three major champions from a little small place in a short period of time, it's just incredible. It's fantastic, brilliant for home."

McIlroy, on his Twitter account, wrote: "Northern Ireland ... golf capital of the world!!"

McDowell also chimed in on Twitter: "What a story ... Very emotional for him. There will be tears."

Both players took guidance from Clarke, a 14-time European Tour winner who twice won World Golf Championship events -- including a Match Play title in which he beat Woods in the final in 2000 -- but only a few brushes with major greatness, and none recently.

McIlroy, especially, learned from Clarke, who is 20 years older and now resides at Portrush, where one of the world's greatest links is located. When McIlroy was cruising to an 8-shot victory last month at the U.S. Open, Clarke watched into the wee hours of the night at home, then changed his plans and skipped that week's BMW International Open in Germany; he wanted to stay home for the Rory celebration.

Both players are represented by Chandler, as well as Masters champion Charl Schwartzel. So is last year's Open winner, Louis Oosthuizen. That gives Chandler three straight and four of the past five.

That led to questions about a fourth in a row at the PGA Championship next month.

"I can't see why not," Clarke said. "I think one of my other good friends, Lee Westwood [another ISM client], has been knocking on the door for so long. I think it would be wonderful to see him win one. And if he was to complete the Chubby Slam, I'm sure everybody concerned would be very pleased."

Westwood missed the cut at this Open, as did world No. 1 Luke Donald. McIlroy was a nonfactor, and McDowell missed the cut, too. Woods sat out his second major with an injury and has now dropped to 20th in the world -- just 10 spots ahead of Clarke, who jumped to 30th.

Clarke got an unlikely push from four-time major winner Phil Mickelson, who before this year liked links golf about as much as being a vegetarian. But Mickelson stuck to a game plan this time, and was on fire on the front nine, tying Clarke with an eagle at the seventh hole, only to make four bogeys on the back nine.

But Clarke followed with his own eagle on No. 7 and was never tied again. Regarded as an excellent ball-striker who can deal beautifully with the wind and specifically with a links, Clarke's putting has been the source of great frustration, to the point of discussing his woes with several sports psychologists.

Clarke had some of the same woes Saturday, when he needed 34 putts in a round of 69, but made two huge par-saving putts on the front nine along with the eagle putt. There were two late bogeys, but meaningless in that he still won by 3 strokes.

Over the weekend, there were texts of encouragement from McIlroy and Woods, who has been friends with Clarke going back to their days working with swing coach Butch Harmon.

In the aftermath, Clarke admitted that he will have to set some new goals because "I don't want to rest on this." He admitted that it burned in recent years to be written off, and even jokingly referred to a writer who had said, "He's in this inexorable slide toward irrelevance." Clarke quoted the line verbatim.

"I've got the paper at home," he said. "I can show it to you if you don't believe me. … You know, bad times in golf are more frequent than the good times."

The good times returned Sunday, and just to show there were no hard feelings, Clarke had champagne sent to the media center late Sunday night.

Something says there will be a lot more than that flowing at Royal Portrush, throughout Northern Ireland and points beyond in the coming days.

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