Darren Clarke: The morning that could never have been

Darren Clarke 5

Six-thousand six-hundred and twelve.

As he awoke this morning, that’s how many shots Darren Clarke had hit in The Open.

It’s unlikely any had the same significance as the one he hammered away at 6.35am.

Not his very first shot in the championship, as a 22-year-old at Royal Birkdale in 1991. Not even the one he had to win the Claret Jug at Royal St George’s twenty years later.

No. This was special in a whole other way.

• R&A chief address Sons of Ulster concerns

Never in his wildest dreams did he ever expect to play in golf’s oldest major in front a home crowd. Sure, he stood on the practice putting green at Dungannon Golf Club a decade ago and imagined, like all young kids do, having a putt to win the Claret Jug. But play for it at Royal Portrush, in front of his own people, in the town he once called home? That was a dream too far, something beyond even a child’s wide and wild imagination.

• Record-breaking crowd to attend Open

Back then, Northern Ireland wasn’t a place to stage such theatre. Crippled by the ‘Troubles’, it was more accustomed to the worst kind of drama. Clarke himself was once centre-stage amongst it, narrowly escaping an explosion just before Christmas in 1986 while working as a barman at a Dungannon nightclub.

A car bomb went off outside the venue at 9pm flattening the building. Half an hour earlier, Clarke been setting up in anticipation of a busy night. Had the perpetrators not issued a warning – well, you can imagine.

Dc 1St Fairway

How distant a prospect this morning must have seemed back then.

Three weeks ago, the R&A’s chief executive, Martin Slumbers, contacted Clarke to ask if he would accept an invitation to hit the opening tee shot of this year's championship.

Since Sky Sports took over the live broadcast rights in 2016, showing the first shot live for the first time, it's an occasion that has increased exponentially in significance. Last year, at Carnoustie, the honour fell to Sandy Lyle, as the Scot made his farewell appearance in the event in the final year of his past champion's exemption.

A decent crowd turned out to wave 60-year-old Lyle off then. But nothing like the one that rose early to acclaim Clarke this morning.

• What is the unusual jacket Rory is wearing at Portrush?

By the time the spectator gates opened at 6am, long queues had already formed. Those in them bounced around nervously – like Formula One cars waiting for the green light – ready to bolt to the grandstand horseshoeing around the first tee.

Clarke had already been warming up for around forty-five minutes by the time the fans frantically made their way in. He was up at 3.15am having got to his bed at 8.45pm last night. There were a couple of glasses of wine but no Guinness. "I was very sensible last night," he laughed afterwards. "I didn't think this was a good tee time to miss."

He wasn’t the first man on the range, incidentally. His playing partner, Irish amateur James Sugrue, had beaten him to it.

Clad in navy blue from top to toe, his grey hair fluttering cap-free in the gentle breeze, Clarke set about his business, just as he has done thousands of times before on days just like this but not at all like this.

A loosen here, a limber there and it was time.

D U9Rj9 Xs Aaxs3O D U3C4 Cww Aaf9Zm

Not in living memory has the first tee of The Open looked like it did at 6.30am.

Every one of the seven-hundred seats in the grandstand was occupied within minutes of the gates opening. Those not lucky enough to get one took up the closest vantage point along the ropes lining the fairway. By the time Clarke arrived on the tee at 6.31am, they were ten deep in places and reaching almost as far as the green some 420 yards away. It was Ryder Cup-esque, only eerily quiet.

That changed when Clarke appeared. A deafening roar went up and the ground around the tee shook as Northern Ireland hailed one of its own.

• Justin Rose hits out over major changes

“This must be so special for him,” whispered Thomas Bjorn, standing among the onlookers on the left of the tee. That, as much as anything else, captured the significance of the moment. Like Clarke, Bjorn has enjoyed a superb career but, unlike Clarke, the Dane will never get to experience what it’s like to play in a major in front of a home crowd, far less hit the opening shot. Until this year, that honour, if you choose to see it that way, was the exclusive preserve of golfers from only three countries: Scotland, England and the USA. Now, add Northern Ireland back into the mix.

The Claret Jug awaited Clarke, too, standing guard in a glass case at the back of the tee, a reminder of his finest hour just eight years ago.

Sugrue was next to arrive, followed by the third member of the group, Charley Hoffman.

Darren Clarke 2 Darren Clarke 4

Then, the strangest thing happened. A hush fell. The guttural roars went silent as anticipation ripened.

6.35am. The moment arrived.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the first morning of the 148th Open Championship. This is game number one. On the tee from Northern Ireland, Darren Clarke.”

GWANDARRENBOY!

They must have heard them in Campbeltown.    

He didn’t hang around. He never does. Tee in the ground, one practice swing and bang. The shutters of lenses rat-a-tat-tatted as the ball flew through the air. A bit right. Maybe a bit too right? There’s out of bounds down there, you know. Clarke watched anxiously as the applause rang out. No need to worry. Safely on the fairway.

Sugrue was next. A short backswing and he, too, was underway, followed by Hoffman.

• TV GUIDE - When and where to watch The Open

As the players walked off the tee, the grandstand cheered them on their way. Clarke turned and appreciated them in kind. The applause followed him down the fairway like a Mexican wave of acclaim.

Ten minutes and two shots later, he had birdied the first. With Sugrue and Hoffman managing only to par it, Darren Clarke led The Open at Royal Portrush. Four holes later, he was three-under and his lead was two. Roy of the Rovers never had it this good.

• The Open 2019: Round 1 Tee Times

In the end, he signed for a level-par 71, a bogey at the sixth spooking him into playing more defensively than he had intended. But, in truth, the score deserves to be little more than a footnote on the day.

"I probably smiled a little bit more today I normally do," he said after handing in his card. "It was more emotional than I thought it was going to be, to be honest.

"I didn't think I'd feel the way I did. But the support, everything from the crowds, just everything about it - when I was about to hit my tee shot it was just, 'Wow, it's The Open Championship, we're back in Portrush'.

"Yeah, this was a good one."

He might not win. He might not even make the cut. But the six-thousand six-hundred and thirteenth shot of Darren Clarke’s Open career will always be something he can look back on and cherish.

Never has a shot that means so little meant so much.

The impossible dream that came true.

Share this Article

share-logo
twitter-logo facebook-logo

Latest Videos See all videos right arrow

play button
Motocaddy S1 & Pro-Series REVIEW & GIVEAWAY
Motocaddy
play button
MASTER YOUR SHORT GAME (Epic Mission EP 5)
Epic Mission
play button
REVIEWED! TAYLORMADE 2019 P790 IRONS!
TaylorMade
play button
FIRST REVIEW! TITLEIST T-SERIES IRONS!
Titleist
See all videos right arrow

Golf News

Harrington eyes potential Ryder Cup spot for Hovland
McIlroy says new schedule has ‘been tough’
‘I grew up watching it on TV’ Horschel excited for European Tour debut
McIlroy and Woods to go head-to-head in skins event
PROMOTION Pros: Turn your old stock into cash!

Other Top Stories

Tiger Woods puts new irons in the bag
New Fife golf course gets go ahead
REVIEW - Adare Manor, Ireland's rejuvenated masterpiece
Win a spot in the ASI Scottish Open Pro-Am with Hilton
Padraig Harrington targets 2020 Ryder Cup captaincy

Quick Fault 'n' Fixes See all videos right arrow

A simple takeaway drill from Denis Pugh
Watch
play button
Even the right grip change can feel strange
Watch
play button
Keep the arms and body connected
Watch
play button
More shoulder turn means more power
Watch
See all videos right arrow