The 2011 Open champion looks ahead to the 2019 tournament held in his hometown Royal Portrush

Darren Clarke – ‘The Open Remains The Best Event’

Darren Clarke is in good spirits when I meet him in St Andrews, not only because of his newly established ambassadorial role with Loch Lomond Whiskies (the Spirit of The Open), but also because he has a good deal to look forward to over the coming months and years. The Open returning to his home town of Portrush this July for starters. Then Royal St George’s in 2020 – the scene of his tremendous triumph in 2011. On top of that, Clarke has embarked on his senior playing career and, with off-course interests thriving, the Northern Irishman is clearly in a good place.

“There’s a lot going on and it’s all pretty exciting,” he says. “It’s set to be an interesting couple of years.”

Club golfers in the UK have always felt an association with Clarke – he’s not so different from us, is he? He enjoys a laugh, a pint, playing golf with old friends and generally being one of the lads. Someone meeting him casually who didn’t know the game might be taken aback by the facts, though.

Clarke played in five (and won four) Ryder Cups before captaining the side in 2016, he’s gone head to head with Tiger Woods and come out on top and, most significantly from a golfing perspective, he has won The Open Championship. With 20 further professional victories, his is quite a CV.

Despite his successes, Clarke remains a character most golfers can relate to. Even his reflections on lifting the Claret Jug demonstrate his connection to the grass-roots game.

“Growing up, it was the one; the biggest and best tournament in the world,” he says. “When I was a young kid, I would stand and hit shots and think: ‘This is on the 72nd hole of The Open and you’ve got to find the green and two-putt for the title.’” Pretty much every golfer in the country has imagined that; Clarke has actually done it.

It’s rare in sport that a player is able to compete at the very highest level on a home pitch, but that is what Clarke will do when The Open returns to Portrush. He’s hugely excited at the prospect.

“To get it back for the first time since 1951, it’s been a long wait and it’s huge,” he says. “A lot of people worked diligently and very hard to make it happen. Wilma Erskine, the secretary/manager at Royal Portrush, deserves special mention in that regard, as do former R&A chief executive Peter Dawson and Martin Ebert for the great work he’s done on the course.”

Clarke is clearly looking forward to competing at Portrush, but he’s also excited by the prospect of seeing his home town showcased on the world stage and welcoming his colleagues to the great links.

“It’s a very fair links course and I think – and hope – the guys will really enjoy the challenge. That’s very important to me,” he says. “The course is so good that it’s hard to single out holes, but I think the par 3s are very strong. Calamity, the 16th, has been stretched to a possible 255 yards and, with big trouble right, I think that could be a key hole. But there will just be such an atmosphere around Portrush. It’s a great town and this event will not only benefit Portrush but also Northern Ireland and all of Ireland.”

And Darren is well placed to recommend what spectators at Portrush might check out away from the course.

“You have the Giant’s Causeway nearby, which is an amazing thing,” he says. “But the real fun will be had in the bars and restaurants. We have some wonderful restaurants owned by the McAlpin family – the Harbour Bar, which has the best pint of Guinness in Northern Ireland, the Mermaid, the Wine Bar, the Bistro… they will all be buzzing during Open week.”

Clarke will play in the event at Portrush as one of the veterans in the field, a past winner, local favourite and seasoned campaigner who knows the track better than anyone. Does he have a chance?

“I know the course like the back of my hand, but that doesn’t dictate I’ll have a good week,” he says. “I’d love to, of course, but I’ll certainly feel the nerves on the 1st tee. Any time you don’t feel those, it’s probably time to find another job.”

Clarke thinks other players from this side of the pond might have a good opportunity. The home fans will cheer loudly for Rory McIlroy but, asked to single one contender out, Clarke opts for a player from the other side of the Irish Sea.

“Take a look at Tommy Fleetwood, I’d say. He’s a Birkdale man and if you look at the course, it’s really pretty similar,” Clarke says. “But we know how open this event can be and so many could contend if they have a good week.”

And what about Tiger? “Tiger is the best I’ve played with by quite some way and it’s amazing to see him back. He showed again at Carnoustie last year how good he is on the links and he will certainly have a chance at Portrush.”

Clarke and Tiger have been friends on tour for a number of years, and one of Clarke’s greatest moments came in 2000 when the pair faced off in the final of the WGC-Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship. Tiger had won nine times the previous year and most thought the 36-hole final at La Costa would be a procession. Clarke had other ideas and beat the World No.1 4&3. “Darren, to be honest, just flat outplayed me,” said a slightly dazed and confused Tiger after the conclusion of the match.

Clarke is more modest reflecting on that competition. “Yeah, Tiger had a bad day and I had a good one,” he says straightforwardly, but with just the hint of a grin.

Portrush will be the 28th time Clarke has played in The Open Championship. He made his debut in 1991 and has finished in the top-ten four times, including his win in 2011. Over nearly three decades, Clarke has seen the great event grow and develop.

“The crowds seem to be bigger each year and the corporate hospitality around the event has grown. The R&A is highly innovative, and it doesn’t get enough credit for that,” he says. “Setting up partnerships like the one with Loch Lomond Whiskies is forward-thinking and I’m sure the status of the tournament will only continue to rise as time goes on.”

Next year’s Open Championship is also set to be a memorable one for Clarke as it returns to Royal St George’s, where the Northern Irishman triumphed in 2011.

“Royal St George’s was kind to me and so it will be very nice indeed to go back there in 2020,” he says. “I got the odd good break there, that’s for sure!”

Although Clarke is renowned for his links play and his ability to cope with testing conditions, he was by no means a favourite going into the 2011 Open. He was ranked 111th on the Official World Golf Ranking at the start of the week and despite having won earlier that year (in the Iberdrola Open), Clarke was flying under the radar.

“I played pretty badly in the final round of the Scottish Open the week before and I was struggling with my putting early in the week at St George’s,” he says. “But I did some good work with Dr Bob Rotella putting with a lob wedge and I managed to find enough to putt decently through the week. I won with my ball-striking really, though, and I was certainly pleased with a bit of rain and wind on the final day!”

Clarke is now playing a mixed schedule, predominantly on the Champions Tour with the odd trip back across the pond, most importantly for the event for which Clarke saves his final words.

“The Open remains the best event, my favourite event. There’s nothing like standing on the 1st tee at an Open Championship and there’s nothing like walking off the 72nd green knowing you’re about to receive the Claret Jug and be named as ‘Champion Golfer of the Year’. It’s just the best.”

A fairytale home-town victory may be too much to expect from Clarke, but what’s certain is he will give it absolutely everything at Portrush and be cheered every step of the way.

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