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Loran Smith Column: Clarke finally arrives to win British Open

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

SANDWICH, England - The long-held view was that the issue with respect to Darren Clarke's winning a major championship would be whether or not he would be able to putt well enough to claim first prize. Tee to green, his game has always been proficient, but his putting has been questionable. In the Open Championship over the weekend, it didn't matter. All contenders failed to challenge the Ulsterman.

Phil Mickelson's game was like the weather. Sunshine for a spell and a downpour the next. Mickelson got it to six under par after 10 holes (with a sparkling 30 on the first nine holes) and then played himself out of what may have been his best chance to win this event. After a birdie at the 10th hole to go six under par, he lost four strokes to par and finished in a tie for second with Dustin Johnson.

Johnson, who has to wonder if there will always be a black cloud overhead when he is in contention for a major, cost himself a chance to win by hitting out of bounds on the par-five number 14 hole. With his prodigious length off the tee, there was opportunity for him to overtake Clarke, but he never gained enough momentum.

Now Johnson must deal with two other forgettable moments in major championship competition: his debacle at Pebble Beach in the U.S. Open last year when he led after 54 holes but collapsed with a final round 82, while Graeme McDowell, another Ulsterman, won the championship -- and his sand-trap faux pas at the PGA last year.

Revisiting that latter scene, he grounded his club in a sand trap, which cost him an opportunity to face Martin Kaymer of Germany, the ultimate winner, and Bubba Watson in a playoff. The lack of awareness was costly. First of all, he didn't realize he was in a sand trap, but to make matters worse, he could have consulted with the rules official who was standing nearby.

The official, according to Mark Russell of the PGA Tour, asked him, "Dustin, are we OK here?" The reply was, "Yes." The official thought that meant that Dustin understood that he was playing from a sand trap.

This unfortunate series of bad luck should not detract from the fact that Johnson is a fine player who is young enough to reverse his latent trend in majors.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland, where there has been so much unrest over the years, continues to celebrate major championship success. After McDowell was victorious in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June 2010, young Rory McIlroy had final-round troubles at the Masters and then won the U.S. Open at Congressional in June.

Now, the latest to win a major is Clarke. This means that in the last 13 months, three of golf's major champions have come from Ulster.

While there were times in the final two rounds when there were a number of Americans in good position on the leader board, nobody, Americans or otherwise, could put any pressure on Clarke. After the 14th hole, he had a four-stroke lead with four holes to play and enjoyed the luxury of being able to win by making bogey on the final two holes.

A man who smokes cigars off the course and cigarettes during competition, Clarke kept on making putts and remained relaxed as the rains kept coming down throughout the round, intermittent but ever-present. It wouldn't be a British Open if there weren't inclement weather.

Nobody cares back home in Portrush, where the Catholics and the Protestants are likely celebrating together for a change.