Darren Clarke picks up his first Claret Jug and another major goes to Northern Ireland

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Darren Clarke holds his first jug

Darren Clarke holds his first jug

Another major goes to Northern Ireland. The surprise was Darren Clarke’s name on the Claret Jug.

Ten years after he last contended in a major, no longer in the top 100 in the world, Clarke delivered his defining moment Sunday in the Open Championship when he held off brief challenges from Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson to win golf’s oldest championship.

The weather was so wild that heavy rain changed to sunshine, back and forth all afternoon, while the wind was relentless.

Clarke was a steady presence through it all.

A 20-foot eagle putt on the seventh hole gave him the lead for good, and he didn’t drop a shot until it no longer mattered. With bogeys on the last two holes, Clarke closed with an even-par 70 for a three-shot victory over the two Americans.

“Pretty amazing right now,” Clarke said, the Claret Jug at his side. “It’s been a dream since I’ve been a kid to win the Open, like any kid’s dream is, and I’m able to do it, which just feels incredible.”

Northern Ireland had gone 63 years without a major. Now it has three of the last six — Graeme McDowell in the U.S. Open last year at Pebble Beach, followed by Rory McIlroy at the U.S. Open in a record performance last month at Congressional, and now the 42-year-old Clarke.

“Northern Ireland…… Golf capital of the world!!” McIlroy tweeted as Clarke played the last hole.

“We’re blessed to have two fantastic players in Rory and GMac, and I’ve just come along, the only guy coming along behind them,” Clarke said. “We have fantastic golf courses, we have fantastic facilities, but to have three major champions from a little, small place in a short period of time, it’s just incredible.”

They are so close that a week after McIlroy won the U.S. Open, Clarke pulled out of a tournament in Germany so he could return to Northern Ireland and join the celebration.

They were always for someone else. Clarke had reason to believe his best celebrations were behind him. Surely, nothing could top playing a Ryder Cup on home soil in Ireland five years ago and leading Europe to victory just one month after his wife, Heather, died of cancer.

“In terms of what’s going through my heart, there’s obviously somebody who is watching down from up above there, and I know she’d be very proud of me,” Clarke said. “She’s probably be saying, ‘I told you so.’”

Indeed, this was overdue.

No one had ever gone more than 15 starts in the Open until winning, and this was the 20th try for Clarke. Yet even as he struggled with his game and the adjustment of raising two boys without their mother, and as the spotlight shifted to youth, Clarke never gave up on his dreams.

“I always believed I would get myself back up here,” he said before heading out to the 18th green to collect the oldest trophy in golf. “I always believed I had enough talent to challenge and win one.”

He delivered on the demanding links of Royal St. George’s to hold off Mickelson and Johnson.

Mickelson, rarely a threat in this major, made up a five-shot deficit in seven holes and was only one shot behind after a birdie on the 10th until he started missing short putts. He shot 38 on the back nine, hitting his final approach into the grandstand.

Then it was Johnson’s turn. In the final group of a major for the third time in six years, Johnson made two birdies early on the back nine and was only two shots behind when his second shot to the par-4 15th went out of bounds, ending his hopes again.

The last hour was a coronation for Clarke, long a popular figure not only in Europe but around the world. Puffing away at cigarettes as he barreled down the fairways, he never looked to be in any trouble.

And the few times he did, the golfing gods came to the rescue. He twice hit shots that were headed for pot bunkers well short of the green, only to hop over them or around them, keeping him in control.

He posed with the Claret Jug that was empty, but not for long. He promised some “nice, Irish black stuff” by evening. And when asked about the celebration, Clarke promised only that it would be “long.”

“And I’ll be very, very hungover,” he said.

He finished at 5-under 275 and became the first player in his 40s to win a major since Vijay Singh at the 2004 PGA Championship. Only two other players were older than Clarke when they won their first major — Roberto De Vicenzo (44) in the 1967 Open, and Jerry Barber (45) in the 1961 PGA Championship.

For the Americans, their longest drought without a major since the Masters began in 1934 will continue at least until the PGA Championship next month. They had plenty of contenders, from Mickelson to Johnson to Rickie Fowler and Anthony Kim, but none came through.

Mickelson’s problems started on the par-3 11th, when he missed a par putt from just inside 3 feet.

“It was just a dumb, mental error,” Mickelson said. “I just lost focus there, and it hurts to throw shots away like that when I’m behind.”

He wound up with a 68, which felt more like a 78, and had his seventh runner-up finish in a major.

It might have been more devastating for Johnson, who never lost his composure even as he fell four shots behind on the front nine. Johnson made a 6-foot birdie on the 10th and a 15-foot birdie on the 12th to get within two shots.

Just like that, it was all over.

Johnson had an 8-foot birdie attempt at No. 13 as Clarke went over the green. Instead of a potential two-shot swing, however, Clarke saved yet another par, and Johnson missed his putt. From the middle of the 14th fairway, Johnson tried to lay up with a 2-iron, playing a draw back toward the flag. The wind caught it and took it beyond the white stakes, and Johnson hung his head and dropped another ball in the fairway.

It was another wasted opportunity — the 82 in the final round of the U.S. Open with a three-shot lead, then taking a two-shot penalty on the last hole of the PGA Championship when he didn’t realize he was in a bunker.

“The more I put myself in this situation, the better,” said Johnson, who closed with a 72. “The more I learn, the more I understand my game and what happens in this situation.”

Thomas Bjorn, who threw away the Open in a bunker on the 16th hole eight years ago, acquitted himself nicely. He never got closer than three shots all day, but his 71 put him in fourth place and at least earned him a trip back to the Masters next year.

Chad Campbell (69), Kim (70) and Fowler (72) tied for fifth.

Clarke won for the second time this year — he beat a weak field in Spain that was opposite The Players Championship — and goes to No. 30 in the world. He had been No. 111, the lowest-ranked player to win a major since Shaun Micheel in 2003 at the PGA Championship.

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Rory McIlroy shows an innate ability to play in the wind

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Rory McIlroy at PGA Championship

Rory McIlroy at PGA Championship

Rory McIlroy is about as Irish as they come. The accent. The fair skin. An innate ability to play well in the wind.

Well, two out of three isn’t bad.

For someone who grew up in Holywood, a small town of 12,000 tucked along an inlet just off the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland, McIlroy’s game is about as Irish as apple pie.

Yet Boy Wonder, fresh off his historic win at the U.S. Open, is one of the heavy favorites to win this year’s Open Championship at Royal St. George’s, a course that runs along the southeastern coast of England and a place where you can experience four seasons of weather in one round.

But just how much of a favorite should he be? Even McIlroy admits that links courses aren’t exactly his cup of tea (save for historic St. Andrews and some cherished memories he’s had there with his father), nor are they best suited for his very much American style of play.

“I do prefer this sort of golf where you’ve got to fly it in the air,” McIlroy said. “I love golf courses the likes of [Augusta National], Quail Hollow, Akron, where we play the WGC; golf courses that are tree-lined and give you a little bit of definition off the tee.”

Trees at Royal St. George’s? You can count them on one hand.

“If you asked me to choose, say, between a great links course like Turnberry and a great parkland course like Medinah, then I’d say Medinah,” McIlroy said recently in Sport magazine. “I grew up on a parkland course; it just suits my style of play more.”

Even McIlroy’s own agent, Chubby Chandler, isn’t exactly glowing over his No. 1 client’s chances on a course where the surface is closer to that of the moon than it is the lush fairways of Congressional, where McIlroy became the youngest winner of the U.S. Open in 88 years.

“I would say Rory might find the Open quite difficult,” Chandler told the newspaper Scotland on Sunday. “You might find him struggle at St George’s, it’s not his sort of golf. Firm and bouncy with a bit of wind wouldn’t be ideal for him, but I would say watch out for him at Atlanta [at the PGA Championship in August]. That’ll suit him down to the ground.

“If it was flat calm at the Open, Rory would have a chance but it probably won’t be.”

Why is that? Consider this phrase: Tee it high and let it fly.

OK, so McIlroy grew up watching and idolizing not John Daly but Tiger Woods. Still, his ball flight is more Phil Mickelson — and we all know how Lefty has fared in this championship, with no wins and just one top-10 in 17 Open starts. The theory is that Lefty’s high ball flight leaves him vulnerable to the Open winds.

There is no greater example of McIlroy’s futility in the wind than last year’s Open at St. Andrews.

McIlroy opened with a record-tying 63 on a benign and blissful day at the Home of Golf, only to be blown away 24 hours later when he carded an 80 on the wind-whipped landscape.

Still, he tied for third.

Ah, Mother Nature giveth and taketh away in this tournament.

McIlroy’s hardly the only victim of such a severe turn in the weather and score — remember Woods getting wiped out by sideways rain and a third-round 81 in 2002 at Muirfield?

In 2009 at Turnberry, McIlroy tied for 47th with three rounds in the 70s. Likewise in 2007 at Carnoustie, where McIlroy tied for 42nd as an amateur.

That’s not to say McIlroy’s game doesn’t travel, or in this case play well at home.

At age 16, McIlroy set a course record at Royal Portrush, a links course hard against the exposed northern coast of Northern Ireland, with a 61.

McIlroy is also oft to play Royal County Down when he’s at home in Belfast.

“I’ve played a lot of links golf growing up,” McIlroy said. “I feel as if I’ve got all the shots that are required to play good golf on links courses.

“It’s sort of like riding a bicycle; once you’re on it you sort of somehow remember all the shots you need for it, little pitch-and-runs and little punch shots into the wind and so forth. I feel very comfortable on links.”

Just how comfortable we’ll find out this week and in the many more to come

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McDowell starts new season off with major announcement

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GraemeMcDowell_001

Graeme McDowell

Fresh off a break-out 2010 season and a new contract with Japanese golf gear behemoth, Srixon, reigning U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell will take his talents and new clubs to the PGA Tour’s season-opener in Hawaii this week.

McDowell, one of 34 in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions event that tees off Thursday, was a Callaway man until his contract expired at the end of last year. A reported $3 million deal convinced the golfer from Northern Ireland to add Srixon irons, balls, hats, and gloves to his Srixon bag. He’ll continue playing Srixon’s Cleveland wedges but it was unclear if he would stick with the Callaway Octane driver he raved about last year or what fairway metals he planned to use

Despite a stellar 2010 season, McDowell appeared to eschew the typical athlete’s superstition about not fixing what isn’t broken as he traded in the clubs that helped elevate him to No. 5 in the world. With Callaway, he was a multiple winner and helped the European Ryder Cup team to victory over the United States.

Why the switch-er-oo — in addition to the obvious big bucks? Those high-flying Srixon golf balls, according to GMac.

“Nowadays the golf ball is a huge part of the whole deal and it was a ball I wanted to try out,” McDowell said on a Srixon blog Monday, adding that he “instantly” fell in love with the sphere. He exuded confidence that Srixon equipment would help him “get to the next level and become one of the world’s best players.”

McDowell, who lives in the U.S., will take a different tack to the 2010 season than many of his Ryder Cup ‘mates who opted out of PGA Tour membership.

“The European Tour, as a tour, is still my home and I’ll continue to support the [it] but the PGA Tour is where a lot of the world’s best players are playing,” McDowell said. “I enjoy the [U.S.] lifestyle and I enjoy the tour over here. I wanted to give it a season to see how it felt.”

So, GMac — Open or Ryder Cup? The team competition was “probably the most exciting moment of my life,” McDowell averred. Winning a major, however, was more “personally rewarding.

“Major championships define any players career,” McDowell said. “It was great to get off that mark.”

Wonder if major-less Lee Westwood would second that?

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Ian Poulter will take a two-stroke lead over Graeme McDowell into the final round of the Ho Kong Open

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ian poulter

Ian Poulter

Ian Poulter will take a two-stroke lead over Graeme McDowell into the final round of the Ho Kong Open after shooting a six-under par 64 on Saturday.

The Englishman followed up his second-round 60 by sinking long birdie putts on the final two holes of the third round to stay ahead of McDowell, after the U.S. Open champion surged into contention with a 63.

Poulter has a 19-under total of 191, with fellow Englishman Simon Dyson three shots back in third place. Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and American Anthony Kang were another shot back in a tie for fourth.

“With Graeme pressing and Simon pressing, you know, I wanted to make sure that I went into tomorrow with a little lead, so it was huge,” Poulter said of his strong finish.

Poulter started with a birdie on the second and then eagled the 551-yard par-5 third in his third straight round without a bogey.

However, it was McDowell who had arguably the shot of the day, when he drove the green at the 10th, which was shortened for the third round to 287 yards, before draining a long putt. That began an impressive back nine that brought consecutive birdies at the 13th, 14th and 15th.

McIlroy was runner-up here the last two years and looks set for another high finish — although Poulter was hoping for a two-man race with McDowell for the title.

“It’s going to be good fun,” Poulter said. “We had lunch earlier in the week, actually, Tuesday it was, and we were having a little bit of banter in the pub, and I told Graeme I was going to win this week. And then Rory walked in and they had a bit of banter between those two, because Graeme had just gone a place in front of Rory in the world rankings. … As long as Graeme’s clear of the other guys and I’m clear of everyone else, then you can get into kind of a match play situation.”

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American Tim Thelen fired a superb closing round 65 to lead the 16 graduates who gained cards for the 2011 European Senior Tour

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tim thelen

Tim Thelen

American Tim Thelen fired a superb closing round 65 to lead the 16 graduates who gained cards for the 2011 European Senior Tour on a nerve-filled final day at Qualifying School Final Stage.

Thelen finished on nine under par 275 for the 72 hole Qualifying School, an impressive five strokes clear of Irish amateur Pat Errity and Swede Peter Dahlberg.

The 49 year old, who will become eligible to join the Senior Tour when he turns 50 next June, started the final day two strokes behind Austrian  Gordon Manson but produced a superb front nine to put daylight between himself and the rest of the field.

He reached the turn at Pestana Golf Resort’s Vale da Pinta in just 29 shots after birdies on the second, seventh and ninth and an eagle on the par four eighth, when he holed his eight iron second shot from 149yards.

Further birdies on the tenth and 12th followed before he three putted the 14th for his only bogey of the day.

By that time he had already opened up a seemingly unassailable advantage at the top of the leaderboard and the man from Texas came home with four consecutive pars to secure his card for 2011.

Thelen, who had led the qualifiers from First Stage at Gramacho, gains full playing rights along with Errity, Dahlberg, Chilean Angel Fernandez, Scotland’s Fraser Mann and Spaniard Manuel Moreno.

“It means everything to me to secure my card and get on the Senior Tour,” said Thelen. “It is what I came over to achieve and it went so well these last two weeks.

“I found something on the range last night and this morning. I think I’d started overturning on the backswing so I stopped that.

“I got off to a great start today and then after the run I had from seven to ten I just tried to coast it in and get back to the clubhouse. It was my wife Lucinda’s birthday yesterday so this is a nice present for her.”

PGA Club professional Thelen, who was a former college friend of European Ryder Cup Captain Colin Montgomerie, was inspired to join the Senior Tour by another friend, compatriot Bob Boyd who has been a member since 2005.

“Bob has really enjoyed himself on the Senior Tour over the past five years and I wanted to give a go myself,” he said. “I spoke to him after First Stage and he said that I was good enough to get through Final Stage and it’s great to have done that. Hopefully I can come over here after my birthday in June then retain my card and play on the Senior Tour for as long as I can.”

Also celebrating was Irishman Pat Errity, who will turn professional before he joins the Senior Tour in March when he celebrates his 50 birthday.

Errity carded a flawless five under par 66 to finish in second place, following a final round card play-off.

“”I’m delighted to get my card as it has been a target of mine for a few years now,” said Errity. “I hit the ball out of bounds on the eighth hole but then holed from 140 yards with my next shot. The crowd thought it was an eagle! That kept my round going and I played well after that.”

With neither Thelen nor Errity turning 50 until the New Year, Dahlberg assumes the mantle of leading qualifier until then, improving on last year when he could only secure an alternate card in 18th place.

Dahlberg, who recorded two top 20s on the Senior Tour in 2010 in Mauritius and the Czech Republic, signed for a final round 68 and believes his full playing rights will help him produce even better results in 2011.

“From the beginning I knew I had it in me and I just stayed calm,” said the 56 year old. “It’s such an ordeal – it’s not like a normal tournament so I’m pleased with the way I handled it.

“I actually missed a short putt for birdie on the first and then my ball was stuck up a tree on the second but I said to myself ‘move forward’ and I did it.”

While the leading six players gain full cards for 72 player events in 2011, a further ten players secured alternate cards in category nine.

In order, they were: American Jeb Stuart, South African Steve Van Vuuren, Australian Graham Banister, Austrian Gordon Manson, American Joe Stansberry, Englishman Brian Evans, French pair Jean Pierre Sallat and François Illouz, Scotland’s Terry Burgoyne and Northern Ireland’s Jimmy Heggarty.

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