Proudly claiming ownership of golf's hottest sensation in years, Northern Ireland had high hopes of celebrating an Ulster victory when the Open Championship began last Thursday.
That anticipation was realised in great style with the final putt yesterday afternoon – but rather than rejoicing over young tyro Rory McIlroy as expected, it was instead an altogether more poignant win for the old pro Darren Clarke that had the Guinness flowing.
Fulfilling his lifetime ambition by winning his first major at Royal St George's at Sandwich in Kent, Clarke became the oldest winner of the Claret Jug since 1967 – and, following the death of his wife five years ago, one of the most widely saluted.
The result was received ecstatically in Dungannon golf club in Tyrone, where Clarke played as a boy. Although his family may have moved away some time ago, the golfer is still viewed as a local hero and his parents are regarded as the finest of folk. When he won yesterday, the roar of triumph was deafening in the members' room, which is festooned with photographs of the golfer and has four of his jackets displayed on the walls.
At the start of the afternoon, there was perhaps a certain anxiety. But it quickly faded as it became clear he was not about to let slip his overnight lead. Assured by his self-confidence, the men in the lounge relaxed and savoured their pints and the prospect of success.
When American competitors played shots, the guys shouted "bunker, bunker" in the hope the balls would land in the sand. But it was all good-natured fun. "Aren't we bad-hearted," one member said.
Clarke's shots drew murmurs of appreciation, but as the day wore on the volume grew louder as victory neared. When it eventually came, the cheers and yells drowned out individual voices, merging into a collective sound of joy. Some fists were flung in the air while others banged tables.
A prominent plaque records that Clarke opened the modern clubhouse in June 2000. His father, Godfrey, was the head greenkeeper in Dungannon, while his mother, Hetty, was also a skilled player.
"They are held in the highest esteem," Joe Cavlin, the club captain, said. "Great people."
Another member, Paul Statham, said: "No matter who you are you'll always get a welcome here."
Clarke's victory extended a remarkable period of achievements for Northern Ireland golfers, who have now scored three major victories in just over a year thanks to Graeme McDowell winning last year's US Open and McIlroy repeating the feat a few weeks ago. Already Northern Ireland is being described – tongue-in-cheek – as a "golf superpower".
Golfing hero's private grief
Any golfer would delight in winning the Open in front of an adoring crowd. But for Darren Clarke, his nail-biting victory at Royal St George's, his first win in a major, was a fitting end to an incredibly tough five years.
In 2006, the Northern Irish golfer's wife, Heather, died of breast cancer a few months before the Ryder Cup. Clarke's bravery as he then helped the European team to victory at the K Club in Ireland won over fans and non-fans alike as he shed tears of joy – before downing a pint of Guinness in one to cheers from the crowd. Clarke, now 42, went on to rebuild his life with his two sons, Tyrone and Conor, getting engaged to his girlfriend Alison Campbell last December.
The pair were set up on a blind date by fellow Northern Irish golfer Graeme McDowell, and a few days ago he paid tribute to her for getting his career going again. "I've got a wonderful fiancée," he said. "Alison is a great girl and instrumental in my getting my life back on track."
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