James Lawton: Clarke secures an unlikely glory after playing by his own rules

The Open champion kept the faith after the sport seemed to have left him behind

Darren Clarke, the Open champion, was once assigned to a career of futility by one of the greatest golfers the world has ever seen.

It happened 12 years ago in Augusta when Gary Player, winner of nine majors, announced, "He has a great talent but he will have to change his ways if he wants to win something important – he's too fat and he's too undedicated."

The big, wide-girthed man from Northern Ireland, 42 now, never got around to changing his ways and we were reminded of this when, as he walked down the 10th fairway during the pivotal moments of a brilliant, nerveless last-round performance, he lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply.

As an example of sporting rectitude, it was completely at odds with the new orthodoxies of the modern game – scrupulous diets, daily workouts and the near-religious belief that he who is fittest tends to win – but Darren Clarke has never been a poster boy for healthy living.

For four days, though, in conditions which have drained the resources of the best golfers in the world – minus the dislocated Tiger Woods – Clarke made a statement about his version of the realities of sport and life.

He said that right or wrong, wise or foolish, he intended to finish his career the way he had spent most of it, chomping on cigars, drinking copiously and perhaps recognising a recent theory of his Svengali manager, Chubby Chandler, who told him, "Darren, you play best when you are fat."

Chandler now has three reigning major champions in Clarke, Charl Schwartzel (US Masters) and Rory McIlroy (US Open) – and a huge irony at the heart of his powerhouse stable.

It is that Lee Westwood, the world's No 2, who still pursues a major breakthrough, was bracketed with his friend Clarke by Player back in those early days of the empire of the young Tiger.

"I went to the gym this morning," Player said, "and I saw Tiger in the gym ... but I didn't see Clarke and Westwood." Over the last few years, Westwood has increased his work rate and fitness with ferocious commitment and produced a stream of superb performances that sent him rocketing back up the world rankings. But he still yearns for a major title and the pain of it only increased last Friday night when he failed to beat the cut.

At that time Westwood's old friend was merely picking up his stride with two rounds of 68. On Saturday he turned the screws a little tighter with a finely judged 69, then yesterday absorbed the worst of the rain and the wind. He also weathered the best of such notable rivals as Phil Mickelson – the four-times major winner who produced a front-nine, five-under-par 30, which could only have been more dramatic had it been accompanied by machine-gun fire – and young American contenders Dustin Johnson, who came close to winning two majors last year, and 22-year-old reigning rookie of the year Rickie Fowler.

They all made their moves and, in Mickelson's case, there was even play to light up the glowering sky, but they never touched the composure of the Ulsterman.

Last month it was his young compatriot Rory McIlroy dominating the US Open stage at the Congressional Country Club, a year after another man of Northern Ireland, Graeme McDowell, won in Pebble Beach. If McIlroy is the new symbol of golfing youth and brilliance – though to refresh this billing he will have to improve sharply on the levels of competitive drive and self-criticism he brought to this ancient golf club – what is it quite that Darren Clarke represents?

Perhaps, most of all, it is durability – and a belief that however unpromising your situation, however deep your dissatisfactions with what life has brought you, the chances of remaking yourself are probably limited. So what do you do? You make the best of things and hope that you can turn it around.

Five years ago, the easy certainties of the sporting life were shattered by the death of Clarke's wife, Heather, and there was an emotional storm when he played in the Ryder Cup of 2006 – he was a man required to ask questions about who he was and what he was doing and those close to him spoke of a deep-running trauma.

One casualty, it seemed certain, was the end of those early ambitions that one day the power of his game and the confidence of his style would carry him to the highest places in golf. Such hopes were prompted not least by his superb world matchplay victory over Tiger Woods, the paragon of brilliance and dedication who had been held up to him and Westwood with such scorn by Player a few years earlier.

Yet they had run thin in the years that followed his family tragedy. He had just one victory in three years coming here last week, a 200-1 long shot, who had some time ago exhausted the belief of his admirers that his tough, muscular approach might one day deliver a major title.

That scepticism lingered for much of yesterday's action. Indeed, it spread across the linksland with what seemed unstoppable force when Mickelson, smiling enigmatically and producing shafts of the kind of brilliance that ruined Westwood's chances at the US Masters in Augusta a year last spring, briefly drew level with Clarke at the seventh hole. Clarke was heading back for the shadows when the man from California drilled home a brilliant eagle at the seventh.

Who could doubt it? Principally, Darren Clarke. He reproduced Mickelson's eagle with stunning assurance, his eyes seeking out the tracery of his shots with an intensity that you rarely see on or off a golf course. Mickelson's charge was over, and so were those of young runners like Johnson and Rickie Fowler and Anthony Kim. They were required to defer to the man who proved that sometimes you can make your own rules, your own life, and still win on precisely your own terms.

No one could have won a major title with more conviction or pride. Not even the great Gary Player.

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