Clarke finally proves the big man for the great occasion

Emotional Ulsterman holds nerve on final day to capture Open and his first major

Never had the champion prevailed after so many attempts and never had the champion cheered so many hearts. When Darren Clarke tapped in on the 18th last night to win the 140th Open Championship the tears flowed almost as quickly as the Guinness. The big man had done it. At last.

This was his 20th bid for the Claret Jug and, in the end, the old trophy relented. It was Clarke's turn, his moment, his chance to look up to the sporting gods to thank them for their patronage. After a day of squalls and downpours, they even shone the sun on the genial Northern Irishman. Quite right, too. Three shots separated him from Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson. This was a success of the very highest order, compiled with ball-striking of the very highest order.

68-69-68-70: five-under. The achievement should not be underestimated. And neither should the determination. Clarke had tasted the sweetest glories the Ryder Cup has to offer and won two World Golf Championships in an illustrious career. But the major his extraordinary timing deserved had always eluded him. Press men wrote him off, the rankings consigned him to 111th and the questions he was asked suddenly concerned Rory McIlroy's chances, not his own. But he showed them all and in many ways he showed himself. "Darren Clarke, Open champion" – it always had a certain ring.

So Clarke became the oldest first-time major winner since Roberto de Vicenzo 44 years ago. But the vigour with which he strode up that final fairway reminded one more of an 18-year-old starting out than a 42-year-old finishing off. That's what dream-making can do to a man. And as Clarke waved to an ovation the rival of any in golfing folklore, back home in Ulster they set off on an all-nighter. Again.

Why don't they just move the Golfing Hall of Fame from Florida to Belfast? This was the small province's third major from six – and three different winners at that. Incredible, really, seeing as there's only 1.5 million of them. Ulster went 206 majors of blanks and then proceeded to reel them off like a machine gun. But still, Clarke took his place in his homeland's history. They hadn't won an Open since Fred Daly in 1947. Sixty four years of hurt.

Clarke's beaming smile was the perfect cure. He hugged his caddie, his mother and father, his fiance and then finally his manager, Chubby Chandler, who, like Northern Ireland, is getting rather used to these celebrations. That's three majors, three wins in 2011 and with Clarke heading to the USPGA alongside McIlroy, Charl Schwartzel and Lee Westwood, who would dare write off the "Chubbyslam"? Yes, there were so many reasons for the ISM camp to party last night. Yet they only needed one: Clarke, one of the most popular characters in the sport, proving that he who waits longest, most certainly laughs loudest.

It was a finale so fitting for the occasion as another day of high drama entered the Open annals. Mickelson charged the electricity into the proceedings with a front nine which must be considered among the very best the Open has ever witnessed. Three birdies and an eagle added it up to a 30, the lowest score on the front nine by two shots. Whatever putt the left-hander looked at, it dropped. This was Greg Norman in 1993 here all over again.

Indeed, but for a lipped putt on the eighth and a missed eight-footer on the ninth, Mickelson would have shot a 28, the lowest front nine in the 151 years of the Open. It was stunning stuff and sent a surge of adrenaline around the links. Mickelson had closed to within one of Clarke, when he birdied the 10th. Clarke's front nine wasn't shabby – indeed, anything but. He battled his putter on Saturday but on this Sunday he embraced it and it obliged straight from the off, a crucial 15-foot par save on the first set the tone.

There were other par saves too and Clarke birdied the second and eagled the seventh. That was the moment, the instant when all his fantasies manifested themselves into impending reality. Mickelson had just caught him on five-under, after Clarke had bogeyed the fourth, and there were many already crediting America's darling with his fifth major. Clarke was not about to bow so obediently. The 25-footer rolled in and his hand went up. They were going to have to fight him to the very last breath to make him submit.

Mickelson suddenly remembered where he was and started to play the links stranger of old. He missed from no more than two and a half feet on the 11th. Those sounds you heard were the alarm bells. He is a curious cove. The bogeys arrived as quickly as the birdies had earlier. By the 18th he had thrown three of them back asSandwich revealed its teeth once more. Thomas Bjorn had hung around obstinately on the leaderboard, the Dane producing his best performance in a long while by finishing in fourth. Perhaps he can now forget about Sandwich 2003 when he chucked away a three-stroke lead with four holes remaining.

Clarke actually had a four-stroke lead with four remaining but it was not remotely possible he would collapse like Bjorn, his close friend. Instead it was Johnson who buckled. The 27-year-old had loomed up in Clarke's wing mirrors with birdies on the 10th and 12th and with the rainstorms having blessedly taken their leave from Pegwell Bay, so the momentum nudged up behind Johnson.

But then came the shank on the 14th and that was effectively that. Clarke could sympathise as when he was last in contention at an Open, Troon way back in 1997, he shanked a drive out of bounds. Johnson looked stunned as he watched the ball whistle over the white-markers on the par-five.

We saw the same stare last year, first when he shot an 82 when leading the US Open by three and then at the USPGA two months later when being hit with a controversial penalty shot on the last which cost him a place in the play-off.

In the tumult which greeted Clarke's win, Johnson's agony would inevitably be overlooked. But he is turning into the Greg Norman of his day. The hard-luck stories stack up on his CV like an habitual burglar's charge-sheet. Johnson must keep on trying, keep on dreaming, just like Clarke. A certain serenity characterised his victory walk. There was one heart-in-mouth second on the 15th when his approach seemed destined to catch the horrid cross-bunkers 80 yards in front of the green. But it consented to clear them and from there it was the procession of his imagination. A par on the 16th, an irrelevant bogey on the 17th, an even more meaningless bogey on the 18th. When his ball came up an inch short, the crowd sighed and Clarke turned to them and said: "It doesn't matter." It didn't either. His glory was enshrined, the Claret Jug was his.

Also at the presentation was the winner of the Silver Medal for leading amateurs, Tom Lewis. What a week it was for the 20-year-old from the same club as Sir Nick Faldo in Welwyn Garden City. He became the first amateur in 43 years to lead the Open (with a first-round 65) and although that form deserted him, Lewis hung on to beat the crack American Peter Uihlein in the "non-paid" Championship. Lewis finished at nine-over and Uihlein at 12-over.

Lewis delighted the amateur game and, in particular, the Walker Cup committee, by announcing he will not turn pro until after the match in September. He's one for the future, but last night it was all about the present and about a champion many had relegated to the past; about Darren Clarke, the player who simply refused to accept it was all over.

Final leaderboard

(GB or Irl unless stated)

* 275 D Clarke 68 68 69 70

* 278 D Johnson (US) 70 68 68 72, P Mickelson (US) 70 69 71 68

* 279 T Bjorn (Den) 65 72 71 71

* 280 A Kim (US) 72 68 70 70, C Campbell (US) 69 68 74 69, R Fowler (US) 70 70 68 72

* 281 R Jacquelin (Fr) 74 67 71 69

* 282 S Garcia (Sp) 70 70 74 68, S Dyson 68 72 72 70, D Love III (US) 70 68 72 72

* 283 S Stricker (USA) 69 71 72 71, L Glover (US) 66 70 73 74, M Kaymer (Ger) 68 69 73 73

* 284 G Coetzee (SA) 69 69 72 74

* 285 Z Johnson (US) 72 68 71 74, F Jacobson (Swe) 70 70 73 72, C Schwartzel (SA) 71 67 75 72, Y E Yang (Kor) 71 69 73 72, R Green (Aus) 70 71 73 71, W Simpson (US) 66 74 72 73

* 286 T Watson (US) 72 70 72 72, T Lehman (US) 71 67 73 75, A Hansen (Den) 69 69 72 76

* 287 R McIlroy 71 69 74 73, A Scott (Aus) 69 70 73 75, M A Jimenez (Sp) 66 71 72 78

* 288 C Howell III (US) 71 70 73 74, R Moore (US) 69 74 76 69

* 289 S Cink (US) 70 71 77 71, J Day (Aus) 71 70 76 72, R Palmer (US) 68 71 72 78, S-y Noh (Kor) 69 72 75 73, G Woodland (US) 75 68 74 72, B Watson (US) 69 72 74 74, T Lewis 65 74 76 74, P Larrazabal (Sp) 68 70 76 75

* 290 S Khan 71 72 77 70, J Overton (US) 68 71 78 73, R Rock 69 71 74 76, G Boyd 71 70 76 73, T Immelman (SA) 70 72 72 76, Y Ikeda (Japan) 69 71 75 75

* 291 S Levin (US) 72 69 81 69, J Rose 72 70 79 70, K Stanley (US) 68 72 77 74, K J Choi (Kor) 71 72 75 73

* 292 J Furyk (US) 72 70 76 74, F de Vries (Neth) 70 73 76 73, G Bourdy (Fr) 73 70 77 72, P Uihlein (US) 71 71 75 75, R Allenby (Aus) 69 72 75 76, R McEvoy 69 72 75 76

* 293 R Sabbatini (SA) 71 70 77 75, P Casey 74 69 78 72, L Oosthuizen (SA) 72 70 74 77

* 294 R Barnes (US) 68 74 78 74, S Gallacher 70 71 77 76, B Haas (US) 72 70 79 73, F Andersson Hed (Swe) 68 75 77 74, G Havret (Fr) 72 71 78 73, B van Pelt (US) 73 69 73 79

* 296 J Luiten (Neth) 73 69 79 75, M Millar (Aus) 71 72 80 73, M Wilson (US) 74 68 75 79

* 297 P Lawrie 73 70 81 73, E Molinari (It) 69 74 76 78

* 298 H Stenson (Swe) 72 71 75 80

* 299 H Frazar (US) 72 70 77 80

* 301 K Ferrie 71 71 76 83

* 304 J-G Hwang (Kor) 68 74 83 79

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