Paul Anthony Arco

The Takeaway

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Dualing Performances

Monday, July 18, 2011


It took 20 career starts, but Darren Clarke got the one he really wanted.

Sure, he had tasted victory before, winning on both the PGA TOUR and the European Tour. But he had never sniffed a major championship. And not just any major. His dream as a child was to win the Open Championship. He had tried and failed 19 times. His words, not mine.

What Clarke really wanted was to hoist the Claret Jug. And to drink from it.

He finally got his wish. On both counts.

Fighting off, at times, brutally wet and windy conditions, Clarke held off Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, by shooting an even-par 70 at Royal St. George's on Sunday. His four-day 5-under 275 was more than enough for Clarke to take home his first career major championship.

The two Americans, both of whom faltered coming down the stretch, finished T2 (2-under 278). Thomas Bjorn (1-under 279) was fourth, while Anthony Kim, Chad Campbell and Rickie Fowler (280) finished at T5.

It was an emotional win for Clarke, who stepped away from golf for six weeks following the death of his wife, Heather, from breast cancer five years ago, only to come back strong, winning all three of his matches in the Ryder Cup.

It was a popular win, too, for one of the most well-liked guys on the TOUR. Not only was Clarke the crowd favorite at Royal St. George's, he was the object of many well wishes tweeted by fellow golfers following his big win.

It had been 10 years since Clarke had seriously contended in a major championship. In fact, he came into the Open Championship ranked No. 111 in the world.

He quickly established himself this week, however, shooting in the 60s in the first three rounds. He led Johnson by one stroke heading into the final round.

On Sunday, his biggest challenge came from Mickelson, who trailed the leader by five strokes going into the final round. Sporting a new and carefree attitude, Mickelson said he was playing this week as if it was his first time. It must have helped. Lefty made three birdies in the first six holes and when he drained a 22-foot eagle putt on No. 7, Mickelson found himself five-under for the day and tied with Clarke atop the leaderboard.

Three groups later, Clarke struck gold with his own 25-foot eagle putt on No. 7 to reclaim the lead by two. Mickelson birdied No. 10, but a bogey on No. 11 and, just like that, Mickelson was freefalling. He bogeyed three more holes before sending his approach shot into the stands on No. 18.

Johnson was the only serious contender left but that didn't last, either. He hit his second shot out of bounds on No. 14 for a double bogey and a four-stroke lead for Clarke, who, despite bogeys on Nos. 17 and 18, was well on his way to having his name etched on the Claret Jug.

For Clarke, it's his third win on the PGA TOUR and 14th on the European Tour. He's now exempt into next month's WGC-Bridgestone Invite; he's earned a lifetime exemption into the Open Championship; and he's exempt into the next five years of the Masters, U.S. Open, Players Championship and PGA Championship.

Clarke's best major championship finish was T2 at the 1997 British Open at Royal Troon. He has made 16 cuts in 20 starts at the Open Championship.

He is the third golfer from Northern Ireland to win a major championship in the last 13 months, following U.S. Open victories by Rory McIlroy at Congressional and Graeme McDowell's win at Pebble Beach last year.

The 42-year-old Clarke promised there would be "nice, Irish black stuff" in his new Claret Jug after the big win.

Let the celebration begin.

Finally.

Captain Kirk

Surprise! Another rookie won a PGA TOUR tournament.

This time it was 26-year-old Chris Kirk, who shot a 4-under 68 at the rain-plagued Viking Classic to beat Tom Pernice Jr. and George McNeill by one stroke Sunday.

Kirk tied the tournament record at 22-under 266 over four rounds. Kirk led by one-stroke lead going into the final round and never trailed, breaking a tie with McNeill on No. 17, by hitting a 140-yard approach shot to within five feet for a birdie. The victory gave Kirk 250 points in the FedExCup race.

Kirk is the fifth rookie to win on the TOUR this season, joining Jhonattan Vegas, Charl Schwartzel, Brendan Steele and Keegan Bradley. He finished T2 behind Phil Mickelson earlier this year at the Shell Houston Open.

Four years ago, Kirk played his first PGA TOUR tournament at the Viking Classic, but missed the cut.

Pernice was looking to become the second-oldest winner in TOUR history and the first over-50 player to win since Fred Funk in 2007. Pernice came into Sunday two strokes back, and stayed close thanks to a 67 for the third straight day.

Bud Cauley, Hunter Haas and Jim Renner finished at 268 for a T4. Sunghoon Kaan, who started the day one behind, shot a 70 for a T7.

Kirk has made 11 of 21 cuts on the PGA TOUR this season and leads all rookies with four top-10s.

Stray Shots

Rickie Fowler's T5 was his best finish in his seven major championship appearances. He was T38 at this year's Masters. He has three runner-up finishes, but is still looking for his first PGA TOUR win … It's been a good run for Sergio Garcia (282), who finished at T9. He got into the Open Championship late, thanks to a playoff loss in the BMW International Open. He should be eligible for the World Golf Championship next month at Firestone … It was a good week for alternates at the Open Championship. Thomas Bjorn, Anthony Kim and Simon Dyson all finished in the top 10. Bjorn, who got in Monday when Vijay Singh withdrew, was co-leader after the first round and finished fourth overall. He is exempt for the Open and the Masters next year, his first appearance at Augusta in five years. Kim finished T5 and Dyson was T9 …Among the notable cuts at the Open Championship were Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Padraig Harrington, Nick Watney, Angel Cabrera, Matt Kuchar, Ernie Els and Graeme McDowellTom Lehman was looking to become the oldest major championship winner at 52. But a 75 on Sunday left Lehman T22 with 61-year-old Tom Watson and Anders Hansen.



Paul Anthony Arco is a freelance writer and contributor to rotoworld.com. He is host of The Golf Show!, which airs Saturday mornings on WNTA 1330 AM (www.wnta.com) in Rockford, Ill. Paul can be reached at paul@paulanthonyarco.com
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