LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – Darren Clarke turned in the claret jug Monday.
Now, he's ready to start playing like the guy who won a major title.
Clarke effectively finished off his yearlong reign as British Open champion by surrendering the chalice to R&A chief executive Peter Dawson outside the clubhouse at Royal Lytham.
"I didn't really want to give it back, obviously," Clarke said. "The year has gone amazingly fast. It's been an honor and a privilege for me to represent the R&A and bring the claret jug all over the world."
While Clarke fully savored the triumph of his first major championship, he hasn't done much on the course since that magical week at Royal St. George's. He didn't even make it to the weekend at the last three majors, missing the cut at both the PGA Championship and the Masters, then withdrawing from the U.S. Open with an injury. He hasn't finished higher than 17th at any event.
"I don't know if it's because of winning the Open championship or not, but I've certainly fallen into a little bit of a trap of trying to play better, and trying too hard as opposed to just going and playing," Clarke conceded. "I got a little caught up and tried too hard. Unfortunately, that's the nature of our game. You get success at the highest level, and it just creates some more. I want to win again and I want to win bigger and better tournaments. There is none better than the Open championship, but I want to win the big tournaments. I just pushed myself too hard to do that."
He's hopeful of turning things around this week. A native of Northern Ireland, he considers his game well-suited to dealing with the persnickety British weather, which has been downright nasty most of the summer.
Howling winds? Driving rain?
Bring it on, he said.
"I grew up in it," Clarke said. "I played a lot of links golf at home in Ireland, and we haven't always had good weather over there. The course is going to play really tough this week. It's quite narrow. The rough is very, very penal, and we're forecasted for some rough weather. But that's the Open championship. That's what we expect, and that's what we're going to get. If conditions are tough, that doesn't particularly bother me. That's fine."
No matter the weather, his first priority is getting his game in order.
The victory at Royal St. George's was attributed largely to a steady putter. Clarke hasn't been able to maintain his magic touch on the greens, though it's hardly his only flaw.
"My whole game has been very, very average," Clark said. "You go through spells when you putt well and spells where you don't. Patience is obviously something I've had to have an awful lot of this past year, and maybe this week things will turn around get and I'll start knocking a few in. But it's an ongoing process as long as you're out here on tour."
Turns out, Clarke's game isn't the only thing that's taken a bit of a beating.
The claret jug needs some repairs, too.
"It's not quite in as good a condition as I received it in," Clarke said. "It's been here, there and everywhere. But Mr. Dawson looked at it and said, 'Oh, we can fix that, we can fix this.' So it's not too bad."
He was a bit vague on the details of the damage.
"I didn't drop it," Clarke said. "Not in my possession. I shall say no more. It was nothing to do with me. (But) it's not that bad."
Another benefit to being a British Open champion is getting a special spot in the locker room that is reserved for past winners. Actually, Clarke received that perk a year early at Royal St. George's.
"I got my locker, and I was beside Mr. Watson (five-time Open champion Tom Watson) and a few of the other guys," Clarke recalled. "I couldn't quite figure out — 'Why am I in this locker?' — and it was due to the late withdrawal of Greg Norman. Mr. Dawson decided, 'Well, who else can we put in there that won't offend anybody, that won't do anything?' So they stuck me in the champions area of the locker room last year."
Turned out to be a prescient move.
"I'm back in the same area, the champions area," Clarke said, "but having won it, I've earned my place in that part of the locker room this time."
One thing he didn't do during his reign as champion: drink from the claret jug.
That strikes a lot of folks as strange, considering the Ulsterman is well known for his love of a stiff drink. Many of them, in fact. He celebrated all night long after winning the Open, showing up a news conference the next day with bleary, bloodshot eyes.
But the claret jug was never used to hold a beverage, not on his watch. Clarke was tempted a few times — especially in the days long celebration after his victory, then again at Christmas — but he reserved all toasting for the replica trophy that every champion receives for their permanent collection.
The actual claret jug remained dry.
"It is just too special a trophy," Clarke said. "I have so much respect for the Open championship, and I couldn't get myself to do it. I thought about it a few times, but I couldn't get myself to do it."
Then, he added mischievously, "I don't need to have a jug to drink out of."
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