Clarke's rocky road ends in Open redemption
All good things come to those who wait and Darren Clarke has waited longer than anyone.
The genial Northern Irishman finally reaped the rewards of the talent which has promised so much over the years but which was in danger of remaining unfulfilled.
Clarke's stunning Open victory at Royal St George's came at his 20th attempt, a new record for the number of appearances before a win in the event.
The 42-year-old, playing in his 54th major, is of a generation of players that were on the verge of being labelled "the past", given the exploits of the young guns, led by 22-year-old Rory McIlroy.
And he was becoming the forgotten man of Northern Irish golf after the US Open successes of McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.
Clarke celebrates with a pint of Guinness as he savours his Open victory. Picture: Getty
But this is the vindication for a man who has weathered his share of life's storms, but kept his eye on the prize and not lost his belief, even if he needed reminding of it once in a while.
"You know, bad times in golf are more frequent than good times," he said. "And there are times when I've been completely and utterly fed up with the game. But friends and family say, 'get out there and practice and keep going' and that's why I'm here now.
"It feels pretty amazing. It's been a dream since I was kid to win the Open, like it is for any kid, and finally to do it feels incredible."
Clarke's road has been a rocky one, despite being among the world's elite in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He finished second in the Open at Royal Troon in 1997 and was third in 2001, while in 2000 he beat Tiger Woods, already well on his way to greatness, to win the World Match Play title.
But some lean years followed before he was hit with the news that would tear his world apart and redefine his life. His wife Heather was diagnosed with breast cancer and passed away in 2006, leaving Clarke to bring up his two young boys Tyrone and Conor alone.
Just a month after her death, Clarke accepted a wildcard to play on his fifth European Ryder Cup team at the K Club in Dublin. What followed was one of the most emotional weeks in sport as Clarke, swept on a wave of sympathy, helped his side to victory.
The man from Dungannon had always been popular, with the public and fellow pros alike. A man the fans could identify with, not a gym-obsessed robot. A man who liked a drink and a smoke and carried a bit of weight. Downing a pint of Guinness on the K Club balcony in celebration only served to reinforce the image. Clarke could, though, be irascible with the media, but he insists he has mellowed now.
In the years that followed, he moved his young family from London back to Portrush in Northern Ireland, described by his mother in the wake of victory at Royal St George's as "the best decision of his life".
With his sons settled, he was able to move forward with his own life and met former model Alison Campbell. The couple, who embraced on the 18th green after his victory, are now engaged. But Clarke was quick to talk of Heather, saying: "In terms of what's going through my heart there's obviously somebody who is watching down from up there, and I know she'd be very proud of me. She'd probably be saying 'I told you so'."
But despite happiness returning off the course, there was nothing in Clarke's sporadic recent form to suggest he was about to break his major duck.
He won twice in 2008 and achieved two runners-up places in 2010. And he made another return to the Ryder Cup as one of Colin Montgomerie's vice-captains in the victorious match at Celtic Manor last year.
Behind the scenes Clarke, who set up with fledgling agent Chubby Chandler in 1990 on nothing more than a handshake, continued to develop his own foundation and mentor younger players in the burgeoning ISM stable.
But after working hard with his swing coach Pete Cowen, long-time performance guru Dr Bob Rotella and life coach Mike Finnigan, he forced his way back into the winners' circle two months ago with a win in Majorca. True to form, Clarke treated all the passengers on his budget airline to free drinks on his way home.
But Clarke was in danger of being left behind after his young protégé McIlroy and countryman McDowell. At a recent party they chided him, saying "pull your finger out" and win a major.
Coming into the Open, Clarke said to long-time friend Ken Brown, the BBC commentator, that he was playing well, "but can I keep my head together?" Brown told him to let his attitude dictate his game, not the other way around.
Leading by one going into the final round after profiting from the luck of the draw in dodging Saturday's bad weather, Clarke received texts from - among others - McIlroy, reiterating what Clarke had said to him before he won the US Open at Congressional, and Woods, who has become a firm friend.
He need not have worried about keeping his head as he made serene progress around a Royal St George's course that had spat out some of the world's best. Smiling and acknowledging the crowd at every opportunity he seemed to be savouring an unexpected return to the spotlight, maybe aware, like stablemate Lee Westwood is finding, that the chance to win majors is rare.
"It's been a long journey, I'm not getting any younger," said Clarke, who was given 1993 champion Greg Norman's locker when he arrived at Royal St George's at the start of the week. "But you know I got here in the end. It may be the only major I win, it may not be the only major I win. But at least I went out and did my best, and my best was good enough. I ask my boys to do their best and I can't ask for anymore. So I think their dad should try and do the same."
Clarke added: "I'm just a normal guy, playing golf, having a bit of fun." Whether that fun includes the weight watchers programme Chandler has him booked on this week is another thing. "It's a really bad week for me to start," he laughed as he vowed to fill the Claret Jug with Guinness.
The 140th Open will be remembered as the one where we expected McIlroy to cement his growing reputation, or one of the world's top two Luke Donald or Westwood to prove themselves worthy of their ranking and finally break England's major drought.
But it became a story of old stagers, such as Thomas Bjorn bouncing back to extinguish bad memories of eight years previously, and Tom Watson continuing his remarkable affinity with the tournament; of Americans proving they are still a mighty force in world golf, of new young thrusters like 20-year-old English amateur Tom Lewis.
And of the weather and how much it is part and parcel of an Open Championship. It also continued the remarkable tale of a small country supplying three of the last six major winners.
But mostly it was about redemption, the culmination of one man's lifelong dream in the face of adversity and the power of positive thinking.