Move back to Portrush was key to Open victory

PACEMAKER BELFAST   18/7/2011'Darren Clarke gets a hero's welcome as he arrives at his local bar the Bayview Hotel Portballintrea with the Claret Jug'Photo Colm O'Reilly/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 18/7/2011'Darren Clarke gets a hero's welcome as he arrives at his local bar the Bayview Hotel Portballintrea with the Claret Jug'Photo Colm O'Reilly/Pacemaker Press
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DARREN Clarke sparked another Portrush party after becoming the oldest Open champion since 1967 then revealed that text messages from both Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy had helped him land a £2.9 million pay-day at Sandwich.

A few weeks after compatriot McIlroy earned a place in the record books as the youngest US Open winner since 1933, a year after Graeme McDowell’s triumph in the same event, the 42-year-old became the latest member of Northern Ireland’s major club.

Playing in the event for the 20th time - he finished second at Troon in 1997 after leading with 27 holes to play - Clarke shot a closing 70 to win by three shots from Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson. In doing so, he extended America’s record barren spell in the four majors to six - going back to Mickelson’s victory in last year’s Masters.

“It’s been a dream since I was a kid to win The Open. Now I’ve done it and it feels incredible,” said Clarke, who, on top of the winner’s cheque for £900,000, is set to pick up a £2m bonus.

According to a reports, his manager Andrew ‘Chubby’ Chandler struck a ten-year deal in 2005 with the retail magnate, Mike Ashley, owner of both Newcastle United and Sports Direct, that involved the bumper pay-out if either Clarke or his ISM stablemates Lee Westwood or David Howell won a major.

Clarke is only the second man from Northern Ireland to win the world’s oldest major, joining Fred Daly, who lifted the Claret Jug at Hoylake in 1947. He’s also the oldest champion since 44-year-old Roberto De Vicenzo won at Hoylake 44 years ago.

McDowell sent Portrush into party mode when he won the US Open at Pebble Beach and Clarke, who recently moved back to Portrush after a spell living near London, expects the Guinness to be flowing again over the next few days.

“They’re probably all getting p*ssed,” said the new champion, having just been handed a pint of the black stuff in the media centre. “They had a party for G-Mac at Portrush and a party for Rory a couple of weeks ago. I’m sure I’ll have another one this week.”

Clarke lost his wife heather to breast cancer in 2006 and was overcome with emotion after helping Europe win the Ryder Cup at The K Club the same year. He did well to hold back the tears on this occasion.

“I know someone is watching down from up above,” he said. “I know she’d be proud of me. She’d probably be saying ‘I told you so’. But I think she’d be more proud of our two boys (Tyrone and Conor] and them at home watching more than anything else.

“It’s been a long journey to get here. But I’ve got here in the end. It may be the only major that I win. But I ask my two boys to do their best and I went out there today and did my best.”

Speaking about his fiancee Alison, Clarke said: “Meeting Alison has put my life back on track. I’ve moved back home to Portrush from London and it’s a lot easier to play better whenever family life is much more stable.”

A delighted Alison said: “I don’t know what I’ve done, but we’re both very happy and looking forward to a great life together.”

Michael Finnigan, a sports psychologist, who has worked with Clarke since April, revealed: “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Darren at his home in Portrush, getting him to realise it’s not the past but the future that matters. I have reminded him how good he is, asked him a lot of questions. He has now come to terms with the loss. It shows his mental strength.”

Clarke sent McIlroy messages of support during his win in the US Open last month, and McIlroy repaid the favour on Saturday. He also received words of encouragement from Woods, absent in Kent due to injury.

“I saw Rory, he was at Chubby’s house (on Saturday night], then I got a text from him later on. He was reiterating the text I’d sent to him whenever he was going out to play at Congressional.

“I also had a couple of really good text messages from Tiger. He was giving me a couple of bits of advice, which was brilliant. Getting bits of advice like that made today a bit easier than it otherwise might have been.”

Clarke’s caddie, John Mulrooney, revealed his boss had been handed a lucky omen on reaching Royal St George’s earlier in the week. “When we got here we were given (1993 winner] Greg Norman’s locker. Tom Watson said it could be a lucky locker and we always felt it was meant to be this week,” said the bagman.

Joint runner-up, Phil Mickelson, provided Clarke with valuable support during that emotional Ryder Cup experience five years ago along with his wife, Amy, was delighted to see his friend lift the Claret Jug. “There’s a lot of players that are extremely happy for him - he’s very well liked,” said Mickelson, who acknowledged the support Clarke had given his family when Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer herself a couple of years back.

“He was one of the first people to call us. He’d been through it and there couldn’t have been a better person to talk to. He’s a tremendous person and a very good friend. It was fun to try to make a run at him but I couldn’t be happier for him.”

Chandler, a former European Tour player himself, has all three of this season’s major winners on his books, McIlroy and Clarke having followed the Masters win in April by South African Charl Schwartzel. And Clarke is hoping Lee Westwood can complete the “Chubby Slam” by winning the USPGA Championship in Atlanta next month. “Lee has been knocking on the door for so long - it would be wonderful to see him win one,” he said.

In the meantime, Clarke, who will make his first appearance as the new Open champion in the Irish Open at Killarney on Thursday week, is hopping Chandler will allow him to put some weight-watching measures on hold until then.

“I’m on Weight Watchers tomorrow morning, but this could be a bad time to start. Chubby might give me an extra day off if I’m nice to him tonight.”