Darren Clarke handed the Claret Jug back to the custodians at The R&A this morning as his year as Open Champion nears its end.
Clarke lit up the sporting world with his heart-warming Open Championship triumph 12 months ago at Royal St Georges and has spent the last year travelling the world with the iconic trophy cherishing every moment with his most prized possession.
But as the rain fell on Royal Lytham and St Annes this morning, the time came for Clarke to hand it back to Peter Dawson, Chief Executive of The R&A.
He joked that he had “tears in his eyes” as he handed it over , and while that may have been said in jest, it was clear he has treasured his time with golf’s oldest trophy.
“It's been an honour and a privilege for me to represent the R&A and bring the Claret Jug all over the world,” said Clarke. “It was wonderful bringing it to all sorts of different countries, to a few countries where it had never been before. It's one of those iconic trophies that people see on television but never actually physically get to see it, but a lot of people did. A lot of people have pictures with it, and they all enjoyed it as much as I did.”
Many would have expected the people’s champion with his fondness for a good pint to have celebrated with a few drinks out of the trophy – that is after all what a Claret Jug is for – but Clarke was so in awe of the trophy he resisted the temptation.
“It just is too special a trophy. 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. I just decided that the trophy was too special for me to put anything into it. My replica has had, on the other hand, but that one hasn't.”
As for this week, Royal Lytham & St Annes will put a premium on accuracy, not only to avoid the 206 bunkers strategically placed around the course – some of are so tough Clarke predicted players may have to take a drop to get out of them – but also the penal rough made all the thicker by the rain.
“It's really, really tough,” he said. “If you start spraying the ball around this week, you might as well go home. There's no chance coming out of this rough at all. Some of the longer par 4s are going to play into the wind. Obviously you start missing the fairways there you're really going to struggle. So it's a big challenge.”
Clarke may have struggled with his game over the last year and dropped to 84th in the world, but after last year’s fairy tale victory, who knows what might happen this week. Regardless of the result, it’s been a fun ride.
“It's been a fantastic year being Open Champion,” he said. “Obviously it's been a much better year off the golf course than on the golf course. But I wouldn't change anything.”