Back to normal for people’s champ

DARREN CLARKE signed off his British Open championship victory press conference on Sunday night by trying to explain what his great appeal was to the fans who had roared him on to success at Royal St George’s.

“Because I’m a bit of a normal bloke, aren’t I, really?” Clarke concluded. “I like to go to the pub and have a pint, jump on Easy Jet, fly home, buy everybody a drink, just normal.

“There’s not many airs and graces about me. I was a little bit more difficult to deal with in my earlier years, and I’ve mellowed some. Just a little bit. But I’m just a normal guy playing golf, having a bit of fun.”

Fourteen hours later and without the benefit of any sleep following a long night of celebrations, Clarke, his smoker’s cough surfacing on one occasion with comic timing, reconvened with the media as the everyman he had described the evening before.

“So you’re trying to tell me that the athlete hiding underneath this physique is maybe not all it’s made out to be?” Clarke spluttered with great hilarity, when asked if he would follow his friend Lee Westwood’s exercise regime.

“It’s now 10 past 9am and probably won’t get any sleep until tomorrow at some stage. Have to enjoy it while you can,” Clarke explained as he sat with the Claret Jug within arm’s reach.

“It still hasn’t sunk in yet. You know, it’s wonderful to have looked at the trophy all night and sort of semi-figured out it’s mine. Nice to be Open champion.”

Before the celebrations had got well and truly under way though, Clarke had spent time on the phone with his two sons back home in Portrush, Tyrone, 13, and 11-year-old Conor, who had watched their dad on television become a Major champion by winning his favourite tournament.

“Tyrone, my oldest one, he was very pleased, very proud. He said he was going to tell everybody his dad was Open champion. My younger boy, Conor, wanted to know what he could spend all the money on. So it was a huge difference between the two. But they were both very happy.”

There will be plenty of money to spend, not least a €2 million bonus from his long-term sponsor Dunlop in addition to his winner’s cheque for just short of €1m. Victory also earned him a five-year exemption to the three American Majors and free return to the Open until his 60th birthday.

Those will be but icing on the cake, however, following a 20-year battle to fulfil a lifetime dream and become British Open champion. The deals are for his manager and friend Chubby Chandler to sort. The trophy is all his.

“That is beyond price,” he said, pointing to the trophy. “For all my golfing career, to get my name on here, it means more than anything. Chub will, as he always does, look after everything, and I’ll be fortunate that it will benefit me hugely financially, but it’s more to have my name on there, which is the most important thing.

“And what’s more important is when I get home maybe later on today and I have my boys, have the trophy in their hands and look at their dad’s name on the trophy, that’s even more important.”

For all Clarke’s trials and tribulations on and off the course, the Irishman said the long wait for success had made him appreciate it more than he might have a decade ago.

“I think I’m definitely a better player now than I was 10 years ago and yes, I definitely appreciate an awful lot more what I’ve achieved now than what I did then. Ten years ago, I did take an awful lot of things for granted as a professional golfer. I played well and I won this and I achieved this and blah, blah, blah, but definitely I’m much more appreciative of what the sponsors do.

“This week has been a combination of all that sort of thing, much easier and much more it’s been wonderful, and I’d like to think that I’ve thanked everybody along the way.”

Chief among those to whom he is indebted are the sports psychologists who helped him get his head straight in order to maximise the talent that had always been within him as a golfer yet failed to deliver the very biggest prizes.

“My attitude this week has been very, very good,” he said. “I’ve been very calm, collected, and lots of the texts I’ve had from colleagues have been, ‘I can’t believe how calm you looked’. But a lot of that has been down to Dr Bob Rotella and a few other guys, Mike Finnigan.

“This week it’s been very easy. It’s much easier to perform well with a smile on your face than a scowl on your face. Fortunately this week I’ve had a smile on my face much more often.”

So, it was put to Clarke, what had changed this week to finally deliver a Major at the 54th time of trying. Had he actually listened to all the advice for once? “Listen for the first time? I don’t know. This week I felt very comfortable. It’s been one of those sort of weird weeks. As Chubby says, it’s once every three years that I get in the sort of frame of mind to listen.

“I’ve had so many texts this last night from when I finished until this morning, from Major championship winners, ‘welcome to the club’, which has been wonderful. There’s winning tournaments, there’s winning big tournaments, but there’s winning Majors, which is just a little bit different.

“You know, I can’t put my finger on what’s been different this week. I’ve just been very comfortable, and hopefully I will find that state of mind next month (at the PGA Championship) in Atlanta.”

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