Darren Clarke became the first Northern Irishman to make 500 appearances on The European Tour when he teed up in the Masters Tournament on Thursday morning.
On the eve of becoming the 25th player in European Tour history to reach the milestone, the hugely popular Ulsterman – whose crowning glory came at The Open Championship in 2011 – was presented with an engraved silver Thomas Lyte ice bucket by George O’Grady, the Chief Executive of The European Tour.
It is the latest landmark in a glittering career for Clarke, whose CV includes 14 European Tour titles, four victories in The Ryder Cup and that Major moment at Royal St George’s three years ago.
Together with his inspirational performance as a wildcard pick in an emotionally charged Ryder Cup win over the United States at The K Club in 2006, lifting the Claret Jug was the defining moment of a professional career which spans 24 years.
Clarke said: “It seems like only yesterday that I was setting out on this journey into the unknown, but here we are 500 tournaments down the road and still counting. I couldn’t have done it without a lot of help from a lot of people – they know who they are, and I thank them enormously for it.
“What gives me just as much satisfaction in reaching this milestone is that I have seen The European Tour change enormously during my 20 plus years on the Tour, and for the vast majority it’s been for the better.
“I’d like to thank the Tour for honouring me in this way, and I hope we can share many more milestones in the future.”
Clarke’s first pay cheque on The European Tour was the €2,931 he earned from finishing in a tie for 29th place in the 1991 Girona Open, since when the 45 year old has accrued a further €20,158,058 – thereby becoming one of only eight European Tour players to have broken through the €20 million mark in Official Career Earnings.
Career highlights include his defeat of Tiger Woods in the final of the 2000 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship – the first victory by a European in a World Golf Championship event.
Clarke would end that season second behind his close friend Lee Westwood in The European Tour Money List, and three years later – despite becoming the first European to win a second World Golf Championship when capturing the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational title – he was again denied the Harry Vardon Trophy, this time by Ernie Els.
The following year, Clarke tasted Ryder success for a third time, collecting three-and-a-half points from a possible five as Bernhard Langer’s men romped to a record-breaking nine point defeat of the Americans. But it is for his exploits two years later that the Portrush native will be best remembered.
Despite having lost his wife Heather to cancer just five weeks previously, Clarke secured three points from three matches as the European team equalled their record margin of victory with another 18½-9½ triumph.
His heroics marked Clarke’s final Ryder Cup appearance as a player but he has since featured as a vice captain on two occasions, firstly alongside Colin Montgomerie at The Celtic Manor Resort in 2010 and then again as one of José María Olazábal’s trusted assistants in the so-called ‘Miracle at Medinah’ in 2012.
Sandwiched between those two was his remarkable victory in The Open Championship, as he became only the second player from Northern Ireland to lift the Claret Jug after Fred Daly in 1947.
Despite the sometimes treacherous conditions at Royal St George’s, Clarke held his nerve with a closing round of 70 to see off Americans Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson by three shots and win his first Major aged 42 years and 337 days.
It was Clarke’s 20th appearance in golf’s oldest Major Championship, and he was subsequently rewarded with an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List.
Clarke becomes the fourth Irishman to reach the 500 appearances mark, following Eamonn Darcy (610), Des Smyth (594) and Paul McGinley (545).
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