The British Open 2011 Final Day: Darren the Darling of Sandwich Sunday

Darren Clarke the forty one year-old from Northern Ireland has today won his first major. It was the most glorious of champagne moments in golf and fittingly Clarke suggested that he will be “very, very hungover” come tomorrow morning, and quite right too.

Clarke kisses the prized Claret Jug

It was a display of class, maturity and real links skill from start to finish and ultimately Clarke more than deserved his victory, which, as it turned out came surprisingly easily by the time he reached the home stretch.

Whilst he plodded on merrily churning out par saving putts and knocking in the occasional birdie and eagle the other immediate challengers fell away and some more dramatically than others.

From start to finish the likes of Jimenez, Glover, Kaymer, McIlroy and Fowler steadily slipped further and further behind the dominant Northern Irishman. The majority of the afore mentioned had pieced together three consecutively impressive rounds, but today they all missed the mark. Conditions were in truth probably easier going than the apocalyptic coastal climate experienced in Sandwich yesterday but this didn’t seem to help the pre-round contenders.

Sadly only three men really threatened to seriously endanger Darren’s charge to Open Sunday glory. The first of these was Thomas Bjorn who until the last couple of holes maintained a score of around three-under par. Though he never made a forward charge as such he managed to just hang in there and prove a potential irritation, just about staying within striking range if anything were to go badly wrong for Clarke coming home.

The second maintained challenge came from Clarke’s final group partner Dustin Johnson. For a long time Dustin was biding his time, not shifting his score too dramatically in either direction until just after the turn where he conjured up two birdies in three holes.

Johnson again proved his talent at a major, but missed out on the title

These flashes of genius were then backed up by a fantastic drive and approach to 13 where he looked odds-on to steal another and move to six-under. At this very moment Clarke had over-cooked his approach to the same green and had a daunting up-and-down left for his par. This for many was the moment Clarke secured a grip on the Claret Jug, Clarke made his up-and-down and Johnson’s putt lagged short of the hole. From looking like they were about to have parity restored, Clarke walked to the 14th with a two shot lead still in tact. Perhaps with this missed opportunity in mind Johnson smashed his second shot on the par five 14th way out of bounds and took his challenge out of the reckoning.

The final challenge for Clarke, and perhaps the most threatening was that of Phil Mickelson. ‘Lefty’ produced a simply stunning front 9 consisting of just thirty blows. The only complaint he could possibly have had was that a couple of putts lipped out, otherwise he could have even produced something like a twenty eight.

This special nine holes of golf saw Phil level up with Clarke on five-under par. He had him in his sights and seemed ready to blow him away down the back nine also. But this was not to be.

Having lipped out another birdie putt at 10, Mickelson then missed an absolute sitter to save his par at the par three 11th. This lapse in concentration came at roughly the same time as Clarke’s majestic eagle at 7, and with it the seriousness of his challenge begun to die away.

Mickelson couldn't keep the same brilliance up coming home

These major challengers came and went and with a couple of strokes of luck Clarke saw things through. Even amidst the pressure of seeing the likes of Mickelson shooting up the leader board he remained breezy. For the majority of the final day his face was adorned with the widest of Irish grins, in the great moments he remained positive and when the bogey’s came he took them with a pinch of salt. He was calmness personified throughout.

Celebrations of triumphant Clarke

A great day for golf and golfers alike. Clarke has always been an immensely likeable character and is known to be one of the more popular players on tour. Finally twenty years of plying his trade in the upper echelons of the golfing world and several years of personal unrest must seem worth it. He has until recently endured an immense test of character following the untimely and tragic death of his wife Heather and to see him happy again is a treat. This was a victory which very few could begrudge.

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The British Open Day Three: Dazzler leads, but the young Americans are prowling

The third day at a major tends to be all about surges through the field. Today only a handful of players managed this whilst the rest of the field dropped steadily back. It is entirely possible that we are set for one of the rare occasions where the leading score after round one is lower than the overall winning score. Going into the final round Darren Clarke is the outright leader on five-under par, the very same score posted by Thomas Bjorn and Tom Lewis on day one. With today’s foul weather forecast set for something of a repeat performance tomorrow, scoring patterns are again likely to be sliding even further backwards.

Another beautiful British summer...

Bucking today’s scoring trends were the likes of Americans Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler. The pair of them carded odds-defying rounds of 68 pushing them up the leader board and right into contention. As a result of these rounds Johnson will go into day four playing alongside Clarke in the final group and just one off of the lead and Fowler has moved from level par to two-under.

Tomorrow provides the chance for these two young pretenders to really put a stamp on world golf and what better way to do so than by bagging a major title. Johnson has already won four PGA Tour titles, an impressive feat for one so young, but will forever regret the golden opportunities which have passed him by in major golf already. Two years ago he went into the final round of the US Open at Pebble Beach in links-style conditions only to collapse to a round in the eighties and fail to even come close in the final reckoning. He followed this up at last year’s PGA Championship by going down the final hole as leader only to lose it on a club-grounding technicality.

Johnson's bitterest pill at Whistling Straights last year

The latter of these sour major experiences for Johnson must have been excruciating. He was notified en-route to the green that he was being investigated on grounds of having floored his club before firing in his approach shot. He then had his worst fears confirmed by tournament officials in the scoring hut after completing the round. His angst at this slightest little error in judgement and seeming pettiness of golf ruling was clear for all to see as the cameras gaze was placed firmly upon him when signing off his card. Few could admit to not feeling for him in this most agonising situation.

In contrast Fowler’s regrets in his budding career aren’t quite as significant. However, he is yet to have won a single professional title and people won’t stop reminding him of this until he does. He has been in contention on several occasions o the PGA already but he really does need to land a title in order to put off his doubters. Making his first tournament victory a major would surely see him heralded as the US’ most threatening young prospect and endear himself to portions of the public who are yet to have taken to him.

Fowler in 'Sunday Orange', one hopes he has this in waterproof style

Both of these young Americans have demonstrated great maturity and a real flair for links golf. Dustin Johnson’s foundation is his monstrous driving, which has unsurprisingly been on fire here so far this week. He has slowly climbed his way up the leader board and has holed several pressure puts at key moments as well as landing a magnificent hole-in-one on day one. Some might argue that Johnson has benefited from playing at times when the weather has been fairer, the same can certainly not be said of Fowler. He has in fact probably had the worst of the weather throughout as was demonstrated by playing partner Rory McIlroy’s inability to keep pace with the form man throughout the three rounds which they have played together. Where McIlroy has missed his chances to stay in touch, Rickie has taken them and he fully deserves to be considered one of the favourites going into tomorrow.

Clarke leads the pack and has plenty to smile about

As well as the youthful stars of the US there are also major European hopes heading into day four and they all seem to be names you perhaps wouldn’t have anticipated going in. First round leader Bjorn is still there or there abouts, Miguel Angel Jimenez is only three shots back in his bid to become the eldest Open champion of all time, and Darren Clarke has maintained his lead and is set to follow the rest of these boys out tomorrow. Is it possible that the old-guard of the European Tour can fend off a last day challenge from the PGA’s finest young prospects? An intriguing battle lies in wait.

The Open 2011 Day Two: Best of British Bow out as Darren Clarke surges to the top

Royal St. George’s today played host to a demise of the British golfing empire. Perhaps this is only a brief setback to the current trend of British domination in the sport, but it was a very disappointing day nonetheless for the British hopes.

Not only did the vast majority of home hopes fail to make a charge up the leader board, they actually fell back. Not only did they fall back, they collapsed in a heap.

Concerns mount as to Westwood and Donald's lack of a major victory

Hopes were high amongst British golf fans that world numbers one and two, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, would come to the fore this week and land their first major. Having started the day at a score of one-over par they both failed to make the cut.

Sadly these two were not the only Brits that failed to meet the mark. Major winners Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington also fell below the cut mark, McDowell in particular spiralled out of control on day two. Having started the day at two-under and well in the hunt, G-Mac fell apart ending the day at five-over for the tournament. Another British hope to slip away was Ian Poulter who fell apart whilst failing to back-up an impressive opening round of 69.

Whilst two Irishmen fell by the wayside one went charging to the top. Darren Clarke produced what was one of only a few sub-70 rounds on what was a surprisingly lean day of scoring. He today made it back-to-back rounds of 68 and took the joint lead with Lucas Glover who put together a steady 70. Both men will return tomorrow in the last group out and will be hoping the worst of the conditions have come and gone by the time they step up to the tee. Clarke is in pole position not only for the overall tournament but in terms of British hopes. If he delivers his first career major in his forties come Sunday evening then perhaps the disappointing displays of fellow Brits will be somewhat forgotten.

Clarke finds some magic with the putter to birdie the 18th

Having started the day with major British hopes positioned ominously on the leader board after indifferent opening rounds today was a definite reality check. However, in addition to Clarke there are some remaining British hopes.

Pre-tournament favourite Rory McIlroy remains decently placed four back at level-par and would perhaps be on terms with the leaders had his putting reached the standards it did at the US Open. Aside from the lack of chance conversion there does appear to be another worry surrounding his game this week and that is a seeming insistence to not alter his game. Links golf requires a very defined style of play and McIlroy today missed out too many times by playing the sorts of shot we would attempt any other week. In order to drive up the leader board tomorrow I believe he needs to alter his game a little. Wholesale changes are far from necessary, but it does seem that he should be aiming to feed the balls up to the green a little more rather than sending in high bombs at the flags. More often than not he missed out today when taking on these audacious efforts, but some impressive scrambling saw his way to level-par for the tournament.

McIlroy looks to handle the pressure of being a major winner and make a move on Saturday

The top of the leader board is a crowded place going into round three and the likes of McIlroy are still well in touch at four back. The weather this weekend is set to be pretty horrendous by all accounts and this should make for some very interesting scoring. If anybody manages to handle the wild winds and sheets of rain then they will have a fair chance of prospering, even if they are coming into round three at about one or two over par.

Schwartzel smiles away as he moves into contention with one of the rounds of the day

The ones to watch in round three could be Masters champion Charl Schwartzel who impressed with a 67 today and Simon Dyson (my punt for the week) who flattered to deceive today after bagging birdies at the first three holes today. Dyson ended up slipping back from the outright lead to a frustrating level par for the tournament but he is quick around the course and knows full-well how to handle links conditions. Others to keep an eye on are the ever-entertaining Sergio Garcia placed well at level-par and young Tom Lewis who backed up his miracle 65 with a battling 74. The young amateur may have relinquished his status at the top of the standings but his is still in the red and has nothing to lose. It seems unlikely that he could go on to win but stranger things have happened.

Moving day is here and Sandwich must be braced for excitement amongst the predicted awful weather conditions.

The Open 2011: Brits amongst the favourites as they take on the world on their own turf

Written on Monday the 11th July:

This weekend’s Open Championship at Royal St.George’s looks set to live up to it’s name and be very open indeed. The field may be lacking favourites of tournaments past such as Tiger Woods and Colin Montgomerie, but things are looking incredibly competitive.

Royal St.Georges plays host for the first time since 2003

Home favourites and world numbers one and two, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, will be looking to make their first major scalps. It seems that both men have a great chance of finally breaking their duck this weekend if the form book proves to be of any relevance.

World number one, Donald, looks a strong bet having put together a magnificent run in 2011. He has gone from strength to strength this year and has very rarely failed to make the top ten, picking up three tournament victories along the way. His most recent victory came just a couple of days ago with a magnificent final round of 63 taking him to a links course triumph. Nobody has ever won the Scottish Open the week before the Open, but Luke will be dreaming of breaking this tradition.

Luke looking to nail down his first major title

Having slid disappointingly down the standings at the Scottish after a classy opening round of 65, Lee Westwood will be hoping to turn the tables this week. He has consistently threatened to succeed over the past few years at the Open and will seek to silence those who have pencilled him in as the nearly man.

Aside from the major British hopes there will be a strong field of contenders seeking to land a major blow. Former champions such as Ernie Els will be looking to land a first major title in a long time, whilst nearly men of the past like Sergio Garcia are coming back into form.

In addition to Els, we should expect to see other strong South African challenges. Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and reigning Open champion Louis Oosthuizen are both performing well at the moment and will fancy their chances of getting into contention come Sunday afternoon.

Can the South Africans follow up recent major successes?

Whoever proves triumphant will have to have successfully adapted to and met the demands of links golf at a course like St.George’s. Last time this course played host to the Championship there were many complaints about the difficulties of the course, and how the course set up was unnecessarily challenging. Though the tournament officials have sought to quash similar fears this time around it seems unlikely that someone can win this title without links preparation.

The unique-ness of links golf is the reason why players such as Rory McIlroy have been criticised for omitting the Scottish Open from their preparations. In an ideal world all players competing in the Open would try and secure some competitive links practice in advance, but of course many of the field have commitments to the PGA Tour in America. McIlroy however, was merely resting. Having bagged his first major title at Congressional just weeks ago, Rory has opted not to play any golf in the lead up to the Open. In spite of this he has remained as the bookies favourite, and we await to see if the rest has served him as well as competitive links practice would have.

Can Rory achieve back-to-back major wins?

All in all, it seems that the British challenge is set-fair for a strong attack at the Open. Beware though of the ‘Dark Horses’. Perhaps more than any other major, the Open has a tendency to conjure up some surprise champions. Could someone again come out of the golfing wilderness and strike lucky at Sandwich in order to become the new Ben Curtis, Todd Hamilton or Louis Oosthuizen.