By Andy Farrell, Special to PGA.com
SANDWICH, England -- When a magazine in Britain polled its readers to ask which golfer they would most like to play alongside, Darren Clarke was the favorite.
Make that Darren Clarke, Open champion. The galleries at Royal St. George's roared their approval on every tee and every green on Sunday. The ovation at the 18th was not just respect or admiration but genuine affection.
"The roars and shouts were wonderful," said the champion golfer of the year for 2011. "Perhaps people see me as a bit of a normal bloke. I like a drink, I like going to the pub."
On the flight home from his victory in Mallorca in May, on one of those airlines where there is no premium seating and you have to pay for refreshments from the trolley service, Clarke bought everyone on board a drink.
That win was an important stepping stone for Clarke in dealing with being in contention at the 140th Open Championship. But the fact that he was there and not at the Players Championship the same week also tells the tale of how he was out of the spotlight that focuses only on those at the very top of the game.
Of course, two of those who have been in the limelight have been his compatriots Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy had been the talk of the golfing world since following McDowell as U.S. Open champion at Congressional last month. A whole month and now Northern Ireland has another major champion.
"We are blessed to have two fantastic players in Rory and G-Mac and I'm just the old guy coming along behind," Clarke said.
While Clarke says he could not be prouder of two men he has helped along the way, he adds that they have not been the inspiration for this win.
"I believe him," said his manager, Chubby Chandler, "but being surrounded by success also helps. He played a practice round with Rory and Lee (Westwood) on Wednesday and they are two pretty good guys to gauge your game against."
Chandler started his management company ISM after shaking hands with Clarke.
"I want to play golf, you look after the rest," Clarke told Chubby.
In the last year, Louis Oosthuizen has won the Open, Charl Schwartzel the Masters and McIlroy the U.S. Open, plus now Clarke. How about Westwood for the PGA Championship and a Chubby slam?
Clarke said of Chandler on Sunday night: "He has had to work hard for his money in looking after me. He has been there through thick and thin and I can't thank him enough."
Clarke admitted that once he reached the 18th green with a few shots in hand, his emotions started to take him right to the edge.
On BBC television he said: "This is for the kids. They were playing Portrush this morning and will be watching this afternoon. They'll be proud."
He said later that Tyrone and Conor would already be planning what treat their father would be giving them.
At the presentation ceremony, Clarke said: "Some of you will know there is somebody who is watching down from up there and I know she is proud of me."
Heather, Clarke's late wife, died of breast cancer in 2006, just weeks before Clarke performed so heroically at the Ryder Cup at the K Club. Clarke added: "She will probably be saying, I told you so. But I think she would be more proud of our two boys than anything else.
"I ask my two boys to do their best and that's what they do. I can't ask them for anything more, so I think their dad should try and do the same. It's been a long journey, I'm 42 and not getting any younger, but I got there in the end. I went out there to do my best and it was good enough to win. If I had come off and not won, I could still say I had done my best. To be the Open champion is just incredible."
Had Clarke not become the Open champion, it might have been because Phil Mickelson had sustained the brilliance that took him to 6 under for the day after 10 holes. Mickelson eagled the seventh to tie Clarke, Clarke did the same to go two ahead, Mickelson got back within one and then missed a tiny putt at the 11th and then faded. Clarke only dropped a shot at the fiendish fourth while the race was on, his other two bogeys came at the last two holes when it only shortened the margin of victory.
After the family, mum, dad and fiancée Alison, who has helped Clarke establish a new home back in Northern Ireland, plus Chandler and other ISM colleagues, one of the most meaningful embraces for Clarke was with runner-up Mickelson.
Clarke and Mickelson have been particularly close since Mickelson's wife Amy and his mother were diagnosed with breast cancer, the same disease that killed Heather.
"I am really happy for Darren," Mickelson said. "He is well liked and there are a number of players who are extremely happy for him.
"But he was one of the first people that called us, Amy and I, a couple of years ago. He's been through this and couldn't have been a better person to talk to. We talked for a few hours a couple of times. He's a tremendous person and a very good friend and I couldn't be happier for him. It was fun to make a run at him."
Clarke did not want to get into specifics about his relationship with Mickelson, just as he did not want to reveal the content of a text from Tiger Woods, the man he beat in the final of the 2000 WGC World Matchplay, other than to say it meant a lot.
About Mickelson, Clarke did say: "Phil has been through an awful lot with Amy and we have spoken a lot. He has turned into another very good friend of mine through thick and thin. He said some very, very kind words after I won. And Amy is looking fantastic, which is great.
"At the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club, I was on my own but the way we lined up to go into the opening ceremony and out of the closing ceremony, I was alongside Phil and Amy, and Amy stood in the middle and held both our hands. I can't say anything more about it than that."
No, it was time to fill the Claret Jug with Guinness. Say no more.