Darren Clarke is a popular man. On the circuit and in the sporting press he never wants for admirers. Indeed, from the frequency of references to pints of Guinness, cigars and to how good a bloke he is you’d think this year’s Open had been won by Richard Harris. But as true as all the bonhomie rings, and as satisfying as it is to see a successful sportsperson with a genuinely admirable and likeable character, sometimes this focus can obscure his talent.
He is not merely a very good golfer ‘for a nice guy’; he’s a very good golfer full stop. Anyone who watched him at the K Club in 2006 besting some of America’s finest (he went up against Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk) as Europe won that year’s Ryder Cup, won’t need to be reminded of that. For over twenty years, though, he’d failed to win a major championship, thus falling short of the bar golf demands its greats clear.
That all changed in a windy corner of Kent in July. Clarke handled the gale-buffeted Royal St. George’s links course, once described by the New York Times as a ‘shot-repelling green trampoline’ and a ‘ball-eating machine’, better than heavily-touted compatriot Rory McIlroy, better than Hall-of-Famer Phil Mickelson, better, indeed, than anybody. He played phenomenally, at an age when most players’ eyes and hunger have both started to fail them. It was an arresting win, especially when you consider that only a few years before he’d had an eminently understandable career slump following the awful death of his wife, culminating in a 143rd place finish on the Order of Merit.
Darren Clarke for SPotY, then. I can think of no one else who better fulfils the main criterion: one ‘whose actions have most captured the public’s imagination’. For a damn good piece of sport, for the peak of a storied career, and because, oh go on then, who will celebrate better?