On the home straight

THERE’S one more round of back-slapping on the agenda. One more party to survive.

One more lap of honour to enjoy. Darren Clarke can’t wait.

On Tuesday, he will roll up into Kilkenny and check in for the Irish Open with a very special guest in tow. On Thursday, he will be name-checked on a tee-box for the first time as Open champion.

The recognition of his feat at Royal St George’s will last a lifetime but the accolades awaiting in Kerry promise to be extra special for a man who appreciates the opinions and the respect of his peers.

“I am looking forward to getting out on the range and meeting the guys again,” admitted Clarke .

“It will be nice to go out there as the Open champion and meet the guys that I play against and try to beat week in and week out.

“It is a special sort of thing when you get praise from the guys you play alongside, from your peers. It is a little bit different.

“Everyone there knows what it is like to try and go out and compete on a world stage in professional golf and they know it is pretty tough. So to get back on that range as the Open champion and to be announced on the first tee in Killarney as the Open champion is going to be very special for me. It is something I have wanted all my life, something I have always chased so it will really mean something for me in Killarney.”

Some of those who share the fairways of Europe with Clarke on a weekly basis were still there when he made his way off the 18th at Sandwich on Open Sunday as the last man standing.

“There were a few of the guys waiting for me when the job was done and it was brilliant,” added Clarke. “Miguel Angel Jimenez stayed back, so did a lot of the Europeans.

“The Americans said well done. Davis Love came up and gave me a big hug. Phil Mickelson was there and he was very kind as well. I got a very nice text from Tiger. The contents will remain private but it was special.”

The future looks bright now for Clarke now after so many emotional winters of late. His Major success, following on from that of Harrington, McDowell and McIlroy, has also done wonders for the Irish Open ahead of its second outing on the lakes of Killarney.

“I hope that in some small way what I achieved at Sandwich will help the Irish Open,” added Clarke after a week of partying back home in Portrush. “It is a very unique and special tournament, one of the oldest on the European Tour, and it deserves to succeed. It deserves to be one of the biggest events on the European calendar each and every year.

“Last year proved it. I thought Killarney was fantastic from start to finish. Everything about the tournament, the course, the crowds, the town, was special. I loved it. Just look at the pictures that went around the world from Kerry and what they said about Irish golf.

“I played really well down there even if I didn’t score as well as I played so I am looking forward to getting back on that course, really looking forward to it.”

Irish fans have admired Clarke’s ball-striking ability for many years now. They have also tolerated his self-confessed shortcomings in the temperament stakes in the past. This week they will meet a changed man on the Kingdom’s fairways, a man at peace with himself, his game and the world since his move back to Portrush a year ago this month.

“I am probably a very different person now to the one I used to be,” admitted the 42-year-old. “I was difficult in the past. I know that. I had good moods and I had bad moods, no different to any other human being. I will have good moods and bad moods but I realise now that I need to have more good moods on the golf course.

“Since I came home to Portrush I am a more relaxed person. I am more accepting of what is going on in all aspects of my life, professionally and personally. I realise now and accept that I can only do my best. If I do best on the golf course, be it in Kerry this week or anywhere else, then I have a chance of contending and winning wherever I am.

“At Sandwich I went out and tried to play my best. At the end of the week that was good enough to win the Claret Jug. That’s all I could ask.”

Life will be hectic for Clarke, this week in Killarney and for many weeks to come. Success at Major level tends to have that effect.

“I am going to have to re-assess my goals now,” said Clarke just months after playing so poorly in Morocco that he did question his future as a golfer, though not quite as deeply as manager Chubby Chandler suggested.

“My goal, my burning desire throughout my career, was to win the Open and the Claret Jug. I have managed to do that now. So sometime in the next few weeks I’m going to sit down and try to work out some new goals, try and work out what all this means for the rest of my career.

“I would like more Majors. Obviously. If I do achieve that, fantastic. If I don’t, my name will always be on the Claret Jug.

“I still feel as if I have a bit of game left in me yet. I know I am 42 but I look at some of the other guys out there who are older than me like Davis Love and Miguel Angel Jimenez and I take heart from how well they are playing. I think I have a lot of good golf left in me yet.”

Killarney may well prove it.

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