I can remember sitting on my sofa on a Wednesday evening in July 2011, eagerly watching a BBC NI programme entitled “The Open Plan”, in which Stephen Watson looked ahead to The Open with Northern Ireland’s major winners, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy. There were numerous clips of Rory’s and Graeme’s preparation in the months preceding the biggest golf competition in the world. There were interviews with each of them, their coaches, parents, friends etc and photos from family albums of their childhood successes mixed with stories of sacrifices that they’d made along the way. It seemed like this was going to be Northern Ireland’s year! Minutes from the end of the programme as Stephen Watson was dandering around the practice area at Royal St. Georges he stumbled upon Darren Clarke who was bombing balls down the driving range. He started chatting to him and I can vividly remember Darren saying something along the lines of “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could win!” Well, we all know what happened four days later! It was Darren, the “after-thought”, who lifted the Claret Jug.
Today Darren began the final round of the TimberTech Championship at Broken Sound, Boca Raton, Florida, with a share of the lead after an impressive 62 on Saturday. Nevertheless some commentators were quick to pour cold water on this achievement by reminding readers that he had been in contention a number of times on the Champions Tour without crossing the finishing line and questioning whether he could deliver the goods.
Today Darren took advantage of rare mistakes by Bernhard Langer, a Boca Raton resident who, at the age of 67, was trying to win his 42nd PGA Tour Champions title. Langer was leading at 17-under after 14 holes and hadn’t made a bogey all week on a course where he had already won twice. Bernhard then bogeyed two of his next three holes. After an off-target drive at the 15th hole he found the water with his second shot, so he had to get up-and-down from the fairway to save bogey. Then he missed a short putt for par at the 17th. Langer birdied the 18th to finish at 16-under and force Darren to birdie the par-5 18th to win. Meanwhile Jim Furyk was trying to win for the third time in five starts on the PGA Tour Champions. He spent most of the back nine within a shot or two of the lead, but only made one birdie on the last seven holes.
Darren birdied three of his first seven holes and led at 16-under until he double-bogeyed the ninth hole after his drive went into the water. He bounced back with birdies on the next two holes to remain in contention. On the 18th he knew he had to make a birdie to win. After a good drive he hit his second shot to 30 feet and rolled his eagle try just past the hole. After Furyk missed a 20-foot eagle try, Clarke tapped in for a 4-under 68 and the maiden victory in his 40th PGA Tour Champions start.
The headlines appeared on Twitter immediately, “First win since 2011”, “First victory in 9 years”… Factually correct, but it seemed to me that the press was making the point that Darren hadn’t won anything in a long time. But a win’s a win; it’s worth celebrating (and Darren knows how to celebrate, allegedly). The PGA website led with a better headline “Clarke wins first PGA TOUR Champions title at TimberTech Championship”. It quoted Darren as saying “I’ve had a lot of opportunities the last few years, so it’s great to finally win one.” And then, reminding me of his statement on the eve of the 2011 Open, he said “I wouldn’t be working this hard if I didn’t think I could still win.”
Determination, perseverance, ambition – Darren has it in spades! Let’s hope he holds on to it and this is the first of many victories on the PGA Tour Champions.
Well done, Darren. Dungannon is proud of you!