The fix was in. Last week Darren Clarke arrived at Royal St. George's Golf Club with his Marlboro Golds and four or five pairs of old school leather golf shoes and his XXL black waterproofs. He was shown to his locker in the creaking red-roofed clubhouse. In his row were seven other players: Padraig Harrington, Paul Lawrie, Tom Lehman, Justin Leonard, Sandy Lyle, Louis Oosthuizen and Tom Watson. All former British Open champions. Locker number 57 was supposed to go to another Open winner. Maybe Clarke's friend Tiger Woods, out on a medical leave. A man in a blue blazer from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the outfit that runs the event, told the white-haired locker room attendant exactly whom he wanted in the empty space. And that's how Darren Clarke, a 42-year-old native son of Northern Ireland, began his 20th attempt to win the tournament that means the most to him.
Clarke, best known in the U.S. for defeating Woods in the final of the 2000 Accenture Match Play Championship, played last week with a jumbo TaylorMade tour bag with a Congressional Country Club logo sewn onto it, which is odd, because Clarke wasn't even in the U.S. Open last month at Congressional. That tournament was won by his young countryman, 22-year-old Rory McIlroy. Clarkey, as Rory and Tiger and many others call him, was Rory's boyhood hero and is still a mentor.
On Wednesday, Clarke played a practice round with McIlroy. The Masters champion, Charl Schwartzel, was in the game. (Clarke wasn't in the field at Augusta this year either.) Oosthuizen, the Open winner last year at St. Andrews, was the group's fourth. (Clarke finished 16 shots back at the Old Course.) Talk about group mojo. The foursome was no coincidence. All four players are represented by ISM, an English sports management company that was founded in 1989, when Andrew (Chubby) Chandler signed Clarke as his first client.
Clarke can be painfully insecure. In 2001 he was eighth in the World Ranking. As recently as 2008 he was down to 242nd. His confidence comes and goes. His waistline expands and contracts. He's very close to Chandler. When Clarke's wife, Heather, was dying of breast cancer in 2006, Chandler was with Clarke almost around the clock. They still speak daily.
During that Wednesday practice round Clarke's caddie, John Mulrooney had a chat with his boss that influenced the rest of the week. A long drought had left the fairways at St. George's bone-dry. McIlroy, with young, deft hands, was hitting showy pitch shots and chips with sand wedges and lob wedges, exceedingly difficult to do when there's virtually no grass under your ball. Clarke was trying to match his protégé, lofted clubs in hands. The results were not pretty. Mulrooney encouraged Clarke to play the shot he knew he could play, appearances be damned. So Clarke committed himself to chipping with his putter. Not always, but when in doubt. It worked beautifully.
Last Thursday afternoon Clarke played in the strongest winds of the day. On Friday morning he played in the day's strongest wind and rain. Sometimes catching the bad side of the draw can work to your advantage. It can lower a player's expectations. Clarke opened with a pair of two-under 68s. Few players had a better anchor for the stiff breezes of the English Channel. Carrying the halfway lead, he told the assembled pens, "Chubby has always said I play better fat."
Playing the good cop last week was Clarke's on-again, off-again psychologist, Bob Rotella, author of Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect, a man who urges his patients to live fully in the moment and not to be so hard on themselves. It's good for some guys, and not others. Woods has won 14 majors by being way hard on himself. Woods always wants to beat players. Clarke's thing has been to play the course. That's the true essence of links golf.
Maybe that's why Clarke and Woods are such good friends, another case of opposites attracting in a long history of it. After Clarke's third round on Saturday, a 69 that was an absolute clinic in how to play bouncy, seaside golf, Woods sent Clarke a pointed and instructive text message for the final round. Clarke was a shot ahead of Dustin Johnson, the long, lean American bomber. "You better write Tiger back," Chubby told Clarke on Saturday night. "You want him to know you received it." Clarke did as instructed, and Tiger wrote a second text.
Part of what makes Clarke fun to watch is that you can see on his broad, lined face how much pleasure golf brings him. Arnold Palmer was like that. Jack Nicklaus less so. Lee Trevino was like that. Tiger Woods less so. Are we having fun yet? is the mantra of Chubby's camp. Clarke and his buddy Lee Westwood will occasionally hole up at Pine Valley, a private club in New Jersey, for two or three days and do nothing but drink wine and play $20 Nassaus and hang out with older men who love the game and the camaraderie it brings.
Last Saturday, Clarke played with Lucas Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, and that was more good luck for Clarke. The pace was hideous, and over the course of the round the two spent 48 minutes waiting to play tee shots. They chitchatted all the while. Clarke was loose and comfortable, and he's a golfer who needs to be loose and comfortable, more than most.