Barren Clarke: It's been a strange 12 months for the Open champion

In the last year the Northern Irishman has been commended off the course wherever he went but struggling on it after a disastrous run of form. So what sort of defence will he put up on Thursday?

In the autumnal, post-euphoric phase of his Open Championship reign, Darren Clarke could be found outside the clubhouse at a near-deserted Royal Portrush Golf Club loading the sticks into the back of the car. The clubs were removed, cleaned and returned lovingly to the bag in their appointed slots, much like a craftsman might pack his tools at the end of a shift. It is odd intercepting a golfer minus caddie, especially an Open champion, watching him lug the bag around solo. It was early afternoon. Clarke had appointments to attend. The thought occurred that he had maybe squeezed in a social nine holes before his engagements began.

"Yep, that would be right," Clarke said. "I have been here since first light hitting balls, chipping and putting. People think I'm just a pisshead drinking Guinness all day. This is my job. Every day is the same. Up early, hard at it, down here trying to improve." Clarke was smiling as he delivered the rebuke. Few work harder at this game, yet it is his love of the black stuff that claims the attention, not the dawn vigil on the range, a common sight wherever Clarke tees up. And when the round is over, he is often the last to leave, pitching balls into the gloaming. This was a good day. You might imagine that, having won the Claret Jug at the 20th time of asking at the age of 42, each day thereafter would be one of celebration. That is not how it works.

His victory at Royal St George's was indeed cathartic, a source of pride, but by November it had acquired a deal of extra weight. Not for nothing did Clarke's achievement earn him the "comeback of the year" gong at the Laureus Awards. It came during a period of struggle and doubt.

Clarke is prone to introspection. You will recall how a session with the sports psychologist and golf guru Bob Rotella in the week of The Open triggered the dramatic change in outcomes. It was not a happy Clarke that reached out to Rotella but one desperately seeking a solution.

It came in a rush. None could argue it was not deserved. Clarke won by three shots in the end, a fair reflection of his mastery of conditions that turned evil and of temperament.

Clarke is one of the most talented players these islands have produced, approaching genius on links courses. He has more than 20 wins worldwide, including a couple of prestigious World Golf Championship victories. He had won two months before The Open, in Majorca, his first victory in three years, but had faded again as Royal St George's approached. Hence the call to Rotella. But his post-Open results fell back into a negative pattern, and Clarke found the juxtaposition of major winner and missed cuts difficult to bear.

The BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards proved especially tough, with the world No 1, Luke Donald, who broke new ground in topping the money list on both sides of the Atlantic, and the record US Open winner, Rory McIlroy, in the field. Had he a choice, Clarke would have preferred to steer clear of the whole shebang. He felt almost embarrassed by his form and unworthy of the comparison to Donald in particular. He was wrong about that, as the vote proved, with Clarke second behind the cyclist Mark Cavendish, a reminder of sorts of the esteem in which he is held by the British public.

He will not be short of support this week when he returns the Claret Jug to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at Royal Lytham. Nor will he be the last to suffer conflicting emotions at the handover: sadness at parting with the oldest pot in golf, relief perhaps at not having to measure himself any more against all that being champion means.

"I've had a wonderful year off the golf course, but a very frustrating year on it," Clarke said. "I play golf to win tournaments and I've been nowhere near that standard for quite some time. I've got pretty annoyed and although I'm practising and doing all the right things, it just hasn't clicked so far. I played really well in France last week and I was not too bad at the Irish Open. I just want to give myself a chance at Lytham and be competitive. I feel no pressure, as my name is on the Claret Jug and it will be there forever.

"I've had a wonderful year as Open champion. I really have. To be announced on tees as Open champion around the world, not many people ever get that. And I've looked upon that as an unbelievable honour. A couple of weeks back, on the tee at Portrush, "Darren Clarke, Open champion", that's as big an accolade in the game as you can actually get. There isn't anything better than that. It's been brilliant. Whether I suddenly start playing great again after The Open, we'll see."

As Clarke recognised, few are expecting him to contend, which is just the position he was in at Royal St George's. "I wasn't supposed to win it last year, so it's nice to go to Lytham where I'm not supposed to win it this year. I know what winning a major is like and I want more of it. That's why I'm practising. I'm craving more success."

Clarke is inching towards equilibrium. He comes to Lytham a married man after tying the knot with his fiancée, Alison, in April. The caddie who carried his bag at St George's, John Mulrooney, is gone, as is the flirtation with a full-time fitness coach. From these details a welcome calm flows. He was one bad hole from a run at the weekend in Paris last week, and saw encouraging signs on his home track at the Irish Open, where he made his first cut of the year.

No one did more to sell the event, and a full house on the Antrim coast paid a handsome tribute in every clap and cheer. Clarke has maintained a level of popularity among the galleries across these isles, and among the players. His old chum and fellow fortysomething Ernie Els, a man who has been wrestling his own catastrophic dip in form, recognises the symptoms shown by Clarke and offers this encouragement. "I know he's struggling with his game. I also know he's not that far off. He's got that great ball flight, and if he gets that same talk he had last year [from Rotella] who knows? That could just swing things."

It has taken Clarke a full year to find anything like a balance, to adjust not only to the demands associated with being a major winner but to the idea itself. In that sense he arrives at Lytham unencumbered.

"I've been pushing myself harder and harder and harder, because I'm not resting on my laurels and thinking, 'That's it'. It's been the other way. It's because I've been practicing too hard and wanting more. I'm not thinking, "I've won The Open, I'm done", I've gone completely the other way. I want more and have been working myself into the ground.

"I knew that I'd want more. That's the way I've always been. No matter what goes on, there's always a tournament next week. You're only as good as your last event. If I was to go to The Open next week, play well and get myself into contention, would I be surprised? No. I'm old enough and long enough in the tooth to do it. So if I do, great stuff. I'm pretty happy where my game's at right now."

Five Open challengers to follow

Padraig Harrington (Ireland)

Best Open finish Winner in 2007 and 2008

Under new coach Pete Cowen, Harrington has found some form and confidence. Challenged at the US Open on a course that confounded the best, he contended at the Irish Open on a Royal Portrush links of penal quality. Knows how to win an Open.

Luke Donald (UK)

Best Open finish Tied 5th in 2009

His Open record does not inspire confidence. However, Lytham is a course that rewards precision over length. The big hitters have no advantage since power invariably equals trouble. Donald is deadly with the putter and tidy around the greens. Just the requirement here.

Dustin Johnson (US)

Best Open finish Tied 2nd in 2011

Took it to Darren Clarke for most of the final round at Royal St George's. Loves the links battle and showed last year that he has the patience and dexterity to get round. Won on his return from injury last month and is ready to claim a major after twice going close.

Ricky Fowler (US)

Best Open finish Tied 5th in 2011

A winner at last on the PGA tour, pipping Rory McIlroy in a play-off at Quail Hollow. The pair went out together a year ago at Royal St George's and on the Saturday Fowler came out on top in trying conditions. The more it blows and rains, the better Fowler gets.

Alan Dunbar (UK)

Best Open finish First Open Championship

The Amateur champion and Walker Cup winner is shooting for the Silver Medal more than the Claret Jug. Just signed by Chubby Chandler, the latest off the Northern Ireland production line has the talent to do a Tom Lewis and announce himself as a future star.

Kevin Garside

The history men: Winners of the Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes

1926 Bobby Jones 291 (£75)

1952 Bobby Locke 287 (£300)

1958 Peter Thomson 278 (£1,000)

1963 Bob Charles 277 (£1,500)

1969 Tony Jacklin 280 (£4,250)

1974 Gary Player 282 (£5,500)

1979 Seve Ballesteros 283 (£15,000)

1988 Seve Ballesteros 273 (£80,000)

1996 Tom Lehman 271 (£200,000)

2001 David Duval 274 (£600,000)

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