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Darren Clarke: Surprise Champion?

Well, Darren Clarke finally has his major.

It's interesting with Clarke.  I work on a morning sports talk show, and in the days leading up to the tournament one of our hosts was talking about how the British Open seems to provide the occasional surprise winner.  All majors do, but the British seems to do so more than others..Todd Hamilton, Ben Curtis last time at Royal St. George's, Louis Oosthuizen demolishing the field last year at St. Andrew's.

So Darren Clarke, does he qualify as one of these surprise winners?  150 to 1 odds entering the week would make it seem so.  It's hard to say.  Myself, I remember a few years ago growing up watching golf, he was one of those international players you would always expect to contend at the majors and the WGC championships.  Solid Ryder Cup player, perennial international stalwart, that's what I viewed Clarke as.

But life happens of course, and unfortunately Clarke had to deal with the untimely death of his wife Heather in late 2006.  After his wife's death, Clarke had to figure out how to raise two young boys on his own while maintaining a top-notch level of play.  Golf can be mentally tiring, and if your focus is not entirely there, good luck keeping your play up.  Especially when you are used to near perfection, as Clarke was.

Even though Clarke certainly had support on Tour from fellow players and media after his wife's death, it understandably took him a while to regroup.  He failed to finish higher than 42nd in nine PGA Tour stroke-play appearances in 2007, the year after his wife's death, and he came into this week failing to crack the top 40 in his four previous British Open appearances.  Heck, he had only one top-25 finish in any PGA Tour-sanctioned event since April 2006, in 24 appearances.

That would qualify Clarke as one of the most surprising major winners of all time.

However, at the same time I struggle with the concept because this is a guy who has certainly proven himself over the years as a capable player.  If I had been asked six or seven years ago who the best player never to have won a major was, Darren Clarke would be on my short list.  Including his miserable run in the last five years, he has still racked up 26 top-10's in 119 career PGA Tour-sanctioned events, to the tune of over $6.8 million in earnings.  He has 22 professional wins to his credit.

Ultimately, it's hard to say.  If you look at the numbers over the last few years, Clarke's win qualifies as one of the biggest shocks in golf today.  If you're a longtime golf fan, however, you know that Clarke had it in him.  He's only 42, and he's overcome plenty of adversity that more than justifies poor play. 

That brings me to my other point.  Nobody brought this up in Clarke's press conference after his victory, which makes me worry that this may come across as unintentionally disrespectful, but after he finished up on 18 I really thought that he would point up to the sky and acknowledge his wife.  Maybe I'm overly sentimental, and he did mention her in his impromptu victory speech on the 18th green, but that's what I was waiting for.  I think it would've brought his resurgence full circle, and I'm sure she was cheering him on from above.  I'm sure the victory made her very proud.

Whatever the case, congratulations on your victory Darren.  Another example of how you can never count anyone out in golf, whatever the odds may be.  And who knows, maybe this will spark an exponential resurgence into a becoming a perennial contender once again.  At the very least, Clarke is sure to pop up on someone's list of favorites for the PGA next month.



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