Golf writer PAUL TROW faced a dilemma when his voting form for the SJA Sports Awards arrived: who to choose from Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke. Here, he explains how he made his choice, and why it ought to be yours, too
Golfers in Northern Ireland, it seems, have a lot in common with buses in London. After a seemingly interminable wait, three come along all at once.
Before June 2010, the last Ulsterman to win a major championship – indeed the only Ulsterman to win a major – was Fred Daly in the 1947 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. One solitary Blue Riband trophy in a century and a half of trying. A poor return, without question, even for a province ravaged for 30 years by the Troubles and with a population of barely 1.8 million.
Northern Ireland is unusually blessed with wonderful golf courses – Royal Portrush, the glorious stage for its only Open in 1951, won by Englishman Max Faulkner; Royal County Down, arguably the most beautiful links in the world; and quirky, mysterious Portstewart, to name but three.
Despite such a rich legacy from the dawn of the game, the queue at Northern Ireland’s golfing bus stop had not moved one step forward in more than six decades. The sun finally broke out with Graeme McDowell’s astonishing victory in the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach on California’s Monterey Peninsula.
At the time, I was convinced this incredible performance – 40 and 90 years respectively after the previous two US Open wins by European, by Tony Jacklin and Ted Ray – would make McDowell a shoo-in for the SJA’s Sportsman of the Year. How wrong I could be? The poor chap didn’t even make the top three in the members’ votes, despite my impassioned arguments on his behalf (possibly because of my arguments, some might say).
Well here we are again, 12 months down the road, with a doubly powerful argument: 2011 will be remembered for as long as the game is played as the year in which two golfers from Northern Ireland won major championships within six weeks of each other.
The story is a sporting classic – two great champions from the same neck of the woods, one the young gunslinger who rode brashly into town and swept all before him, the other an ageing warhorse who many, himself included I suspect, felt his best days were long behind him.
More than 20 years separates these two heroes in age, yet each performance is worthy of a Hollywood script, achieved as it was in defiance of heartache and cruel fortune.
Rory McIlroy arrived at this year’s US Open at Congressional Country Club just outside Washington DC a seemingly broken young man. He’d led the Masters earlier in the year by four shots going into the last round, and many pundits felt that if he’d putted half-decently during those first 54 holes his lead would have been more like 10.
At a tender 22 years of age, McIlroy had tasted few disappointments in his brief life, but to collapse as spectacularly as he did on the back nine at Augusta National, so much so that he didn’t even finish in the top 15, would have broken the spirit of many battle-hardened competitors for good.
But two months later, here he was again, blowing the field away on a monstrously long and unforgiving golf course – only this time he didn’t stall. He kept moving up through the gears until the rest of the field simply pulled over and fanfared him through.
McIlroy’s eight-shot triumph was, quite simply, the greatest single sporting achievement of the year by anyone from the United Kingdom. Of that, surely, there can be no argument.
That week, he did far more than conquer those lurking demons from the Masters. He played a brand of golf that only half a dozen players in history could even have dreamt of. After four electrifying days, he was king of the world and Tiger Woods was but a serf.
After witnessing such a sublime performance from the whippersnapper he’d watched growing up and passed tips to at junior golf clinics, spare a thought for Darren Clarke. True, he’d had his moments during two decades as one of the European Tour’s leading lights – lots of them, in fact. He’d won more than 20 titles around the world, including a couple of big ones in the United States.
He’d come close in a couple of Opens too – at Troon in 1997 and Lytham in 2001 – but a career total of just six top 10s in major championships was, frankly, a poor return from a man who’d been one of Europe’s linchpins in five Ryder Cups and was regarded by his peers as perhaps the best ball-striker of his generation.
So Clarke could have been forgiven for feeling doubly sorry for himself in July as he teed up at the Open for the 20th time in his life, just three months shy of his 43rd birthday. To say time was running out for this lovable giant, whose life was tragically scarred in 2006 when his wife Heather died of cancer, was an understatement.
But on the practice range at Royal St George’s, the day before hostilities began, Clarke found something. It had happened before to no avail, but this time he took a quiet confidence with him on to the daunting Kent links, a course perhaps more like Royal Portrush where he grew up than any other course in England.
Those of us in the media centre over the first three days could only marvel at the serenity of temperament this often-disappointed man was displaying.
And on the last day he went from strength to strength – riding his luck, making light of the foul weather, punching his ball under the wind as he’d been taught to do back in the old country, and never failing to smile and wave to the galleries. There was not a dry eye in the house and not a person pulling against him – not even his closest rivals, the classy Americans Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.
His three-shot margin of victory could have been greater, but he understandably played it safe down the final two holes. The fruition of his life’s work was already in the bag and one of sport’s greatest comeback-payback stories was not to be denied. If the gods had touched McIlroy at Congressional, they were certainly on Clarke’s bag at Sandwich.
Emotion-charged triumphs don’t get any better than this. So with due apologies to the cherubic McIlroy, my vote for SJA Sportsman of 2011 goes to the veteran Clarke.
It’s fair to say he’s been on a bit of a bender ever since, and who could blame him? But as with all bendy buses, they straighten up eventually and keep chugging on down the road.
SJA WORKING LUNCH: Baroness Grey-Thompson on the 2012 London Paralympics. Thu Nov 17: click here for booking details
- Who will you vote for as Britain’s Sportsman, Sportswoman and Team of the Year? See Ian Cole’s overview of the leading candidates by clicking here.
- Follow news of the SJA British Sports Award on Twitter with the hashtag #SJA2011
- SJA members can cast their votes by clicking here.
- The awards will be presented at our gala annual lunch in London on December 7. Don’t miss out on being there – click here for a ticket booking form, with SJA members entitled to buy two tickets at half the usual price.