When chasing majors, even some of golf's best take nothing for granted

darren clarke
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Darren Clarke spent a quiet moment studying his name on the Claret Jug, well aware that golf makes no promieses that every deserving player will win a major of his own.
By
Doug Ferguson
Associated Press

Series: PGA Tour

Dustin Johnson probably doesn’t think he’ll have to wait 15 years to win a major.

He already has won four times in his four years on the PGA Tour, and he has played in the final group at three of the last six majors. That doesn’t happen by accident. To say Johnson is the most talented American golfer won’t get much of an argument.

2011 BRITISH OPEN

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Then again, a young Darren Clarke might have thought the same thing.

Clarke was among the new faces in European golf that helped inspire a slow revival in the late 1990s. He might not have had the raw skill of someone like Johnson, but a major figured to be in his future. He played in the final group at Royal Troon in 1997. He took down Tiger Woods at the 2000 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship when Woods was at the absolute top of his game. Then came another close call a year later in the British Open.

 His major finally arrived Sunday, a month before he turns 43, his head full of gray hair and his belly bulging.

But at least he got there.

“The hardest thing with Darren was that he’s been slightly labeled an underachiever. And he was,” his agent, Chubby Chandler, said in the glowing aftermath Sunday evening. “He had the talent to win a major, an Open, but it didn’t happen. For it to happen like this is just amazing. Now he’s no longer an underachiever.”

Clarke became the third-oldest player to win his first major, trailing only 45-year-old Jerry Barber in the 1961 PGA Championship and Roberto De Vicenzo at 44 in the 1967 British Open.

There are others like Clarke who were on the downside of their prime years when they won a major. Two that come to mind are Tom Kite, who was 42 when he won the U.S. Open, and Mark O’Meara, who was 41 when he won the Masters and British Open.

One reminder from this British Open is that there are no guarantees in golf. The game owes nothing to anyone.

Johnson would seem to be a lock to win a major, simply by the experience he has been gaining, even if it’s the kind he’d rather forget. But hard knocks also raise questions.

There was that atrocious start at Pebble Beach last year on his way to an 82, his dubious two-shot penalty on the final hole of Whistling Straits last year at PGA Championship when he didn’t realize he was in a bunker, and that 2-iron on the 14th hole of Royal St. George’s on Sunday.

Surely, he’ll figure it out soon.

But wasn’t that also said of Sergio Garcia?

Garcia had it far more difficult, playing in an era when Woods was winning majors just about every year. The Spaniard is only 31, although it seems as though he’s been around much longer because he has been in the mix at majors so much. As a 19-year-old rookie, he nearly came from behind to catch Woods at Medinah. He played with Woods in the final group twice more in majors, and when Woods wasn’t around, Garcia found another nemesis while losing two majors to Padraig Harrington.

A dozen years after he roared onto the scene, Garcia still hasn’t won the big one. And this year, his game reached a point that he was happy just to be playing in the last two majors.

And then there’s 38-year-old Lee Westwood.

As happy as he was for one of his best friends winning the Open, part of Westwood had to be asking, “When will it be my turn?”

Twice in the last four years, he missed out on a playoff in the majors by one shot. He had the 54-hole lead at the Masters last year and was beaten by better golf from Phil Mickelson. Westwood kept getting better to the point that he reached No. 1 in the world.

But still no major.

“Lee has done everything he can do to get himself into contention to win,” Clarke said. “Unfortunately, he’s had guys that have played better than him on quite a few occasions, or they’ve had the bounce of the ball or things going their way. Right now, things haven’t gone his way, but I’m sure that they will go his way because he’s too good a player to not go his way.”

True.

But the same could have been said of Colin Montgomerie.

He won a record eight money titles on the European Tour. He twice got into a playoff at the majors, losing both of them. Then came what appeared to be a Clarke-type moment at Winged Foot in 2006 when Montgomerie, at age 42, had a chance to win a U.S. Open. From the middle of the 18th fairway, he chunked a 7-iron and made double bogey. That shot might explain why Monty never won a major.

Everyone makes blunders in the majors -- Kite, O’Meara, Tom Watson -- and they eventually figure it out.

But not always.

“The game is fickle,” Clarke said. “It hammers you, it hammers you, and then it gives you something. Of all people, I think Lee Westwood deserves something to be given to him. And I’m very sure that he will win majors, and not just a major.”

That’s what was said of Rory McIlroy before he won the U.S. Open last month by eight shots with a record score. Some players -- with an Irish accent, it should be noted -- began the countdown to Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors. Then came the British Open, and a curious complaint from McIlroy that he doesn’t like playing in the wind.

Adding to the pressure of Westwood is that four players from Chandler’s stable at International Sports Management have won the last five majors -- Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, McIlroy and now Clarke.

Everyone but Westwood.

“That will be hard on him,” Clarke said. “But if I was a gambling man … I would have a substantial bet on Lee Westwood winning the PGA in Atlanta. I hope he does.”

Hope isn’t enough.