News From Terre Haute, Indiana

On & Off the Course

July 24, 2011

On and Off the Course: Northern Ireland builds on golf history

TERRE HAUTE — Northern Ireland is only about 5,452 square miles in area and has a population about the same as West Virginia, which is about 1,880,344.

To the east lies the Irish Sea and to the north is the North Atlantic Ocean. It lies at about the 55th parallel, which is about the same as Moscow, Russia. It is a country full of gorgeous panoramic views, and often bracing winds. It is a country with a history of war and protest, full of people proud and brave and true to their country, and like the recent British Open champion, Darren Clarke, people who are lion-hearted but like to relax and enjoy themselves.

This tiny country, after having only one major champion in 151 years of major championships (Fred Daly won the British Open in 1947) has produced the past two U.S. Open champions, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy. It’s fitting that the grizzled veteran and  mentor to those champions would join the group as one of golf’s major champions when he won the 140th Open Championship on his 20th try, at the age of 42.

Until now, Darren Clarke was best known in the United States for being one of the toughest adversaries we had to face in the Ryder Cup. He had plenty of game but mostly he had plenty of grit and fight, and when his game was on, he was usually triumphant.

He has played in five Ryder Cups, with an overall record of 10 wins, 7 losses and 3 halves. He was best in foursomes and fourball, when he was with a partner who fed off of his energy. In Foursomes he won 3 and lost 3. In fourball, though (which is like best ball) he has won 6, lost 2, and halved 1.

One of the most memorable Ryder Cup moments came through Clarke in 2006, when he came to the first tee to an roaring ovation just a month after his wife Heather had died of cancer. The Europeans won that year, and Clark had helped with 3 points. He’s certain to be a European team captain one day, but he’d rather hold that off and keep participating as a player while he can.

He’s been a fan favorite because he always considered himself just a regular guy, one who liked his Guinness and his cigars, and would gladly hang around in the pubs after golf with all of the other “regular guys.” It is reported on the website Puffingcigars.com (really, that’s its name), that Darren Clarke spends $25,000 a year on cigars. It doesn’t say whether it’s because of quantity or quality, but it’s likely that it’s a little bit of both. It also might be because he’s likely to share his cigars with friends, yet another reason why he’s a popular man. 

After winning the British Open last weekend, Clarke partied all night, only stopping in the morning when he was due for more interviews and photos at Royal St. George’s. “I have not been to bed yet,” he told his interviewer. “I probably won’t get any sleep until tomorrow at some stage. You have to enjoy it while you can. It’s been a very good night.” 

He did not use the Claret Jug trophy as a serving vessel though, as was expected from some of the TV commentators. “I’m a little bit of a traditionalist. I feel funny about putting stuff in the claret jug that shouldn’t be in there, so I’m a little bit more reserved as to what I should do. That may not be the case as the week goes by, but at the moment there’s been nothing in there,” he said.

Northern Ireland golf history goes back to 1881, when Royal Belfast was built. The golfing bug hit the people hard, and dozens of courses were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with architects such as Tom Norris and Alister McKenzie. Some of the grandest courses are Royal Portrush and Royal County Down. The most recent gem is Lough Erne Resort, designed by Nick Faldo.

Clarke’s home course of Royal Portrush is being considered as a future venue for the Open Championship. It was held there in 1951, as it became the only course outside of Scotland and England to host. There are at least two interesting artifacts there for visitors to see: Darren Clarke donated the gold medal he won for winning The Open, and it will sit alongside the medal won by Daly in 1947.

The Royal And Ancient has its reservations about Royal Portrush in the modern era but I, for one, would love to visit Northern Ireland and to play some of the links courses there as a prelude to visiting The Open Championship. I’d have a lot of packing to do: the visitor’s website, www.discovernorthernireland.com, gives this clue about the weather. “In Northern Ireland, the weather forecast can often be all four seasons in a single day, so it’s always advisable to pack your waterproofs.” Aye, laddie!

• Quote of the Day: “He wanted to know what he could spend all the money on.” – Darren Clarke, on his youngest son Conner’s reaction after his dad won The British Open.

 

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