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British Open reign ends for Irishman Clarke

LYTHAM & ST. ANNE'S, England — The Irish have a prayer that wishes the road rise up to meet you and the wind stay ever at your back. That prayer was answered for one of their own in the British Open last year.

Now, it has come full circle for Darren Clarke.

On Monday morning, the man from Portrush, Northern Ireland, had to give back the symbol of his greatest moment in the game. By tradition, the previous year's champion returns the Claret Jug before the next year's tournament begins.

That allowed one more retelling of one of the more popular moments in golf, plus a telling of the year after, the year that was for Clarke.

"It's been a much better year off the golf course than on the golf course," Clarke said. "But I wouldn't change a thing."

He will turn 44 on Aug. 14. He won his first major in his 20th British Open and 54th major. He did so, at a Royal St. George golf course that was bombarded by severe and unpredictable weather that mostly kicked up before he started his round or after he had finished it. On one crucial shot in his final round, his approach skirted around and bounced over several bunkers before rolling onto the green.

When Phil Mickelson made an eagle early in the round that day to tie him, Clarke came along a couple of groups later and did the same thing. When Clarke was still within Mickelson's reach late in the round, Mickelson hit his approach shot on No. 18 into the greenside bleachers.

Still, even when Clarke finished with two bogeys, there was nobody calling it luck. Even if there were some of that, he is such a popular character here that it was almost as if the entire United Kingdom was pushing on that road to make it rise up.

During Clarke's post-victory news conference, a newspaperman interrupted to bring him a glass of Guinness, apparently to help with the rigors of facing off with writers. Clarke smiled, accepted and indicated clearly that this was not the first dark pint that he had encountered over the years. There were no written or broadcast calls of outrage over the obvious nod to the virtues of alcohol.

In his victory ceremony, Clarke had looked skyward and told the crowd, "Obviously, somebody up there was watching and would be proud of me."

That was a reference to his wife, Heather, who had died of breast cancer in August 2006.

Two months after her death, after playing almost no golf, Clarke posted a 3-0 record for the European Ryder Cup team, leading it to victory. In the ceremonies before the match, Mickelson and his wife, Amy, spotted Clarke, about to march alone, and joined hands with him.

Suffice to say, the only thing more popular than Clarke himself — a good-but-not-great golfer in a game where greatness abounds — was Clarke's British Open victory.

Clarke's return of the revered Claret Jug on Monday symbolized the tournament moving on. But it was not an all-good-things-must-end for Clarke. Hardware departs. Memories do not.

"It's been a fantastic year, being Open champion," Clarke said.

And he said those words in the wake of playing badly much of the time, missing the cut at the Masters, withdrawing from the U.S. Open with an injury and doing little to leave any impression that he might be winning the trophy back.

The oddsmakers had him at 125-1 to win last year, and it probably won't be much different this year.

"I've fallen into a little bit of a trap, trying too hard to play better," Clarke said. "My whole game has been very, very average, to tell you the truth."

His life has been the opposite.

After he missed the cut at the Masters, he sneaked off to the Bahamas to marry his fiancee, Alison Campbell, in front of a small group of close friends. Graeme McDowell, fellow Portrush resident and 2010 U.S. Open champion, made the invitation group as the man who had introduced Alison to Clarke.

"G-Mac has now seen the job through to the end," Clarke said.

All year, Clarke traveled with the Claret Jug. He took it to places it had never been, he said, and shared it with anybody and everybody. That includes the cop who stopped him for driving too fast in Killarney and, once seeing the jug, traded a picture with it and Clarke for a speeding ticket.

He has disrupted airport security lines with the jug, taken it to parties, kept it in a special place in his kitchen for display. But it was all done with a surprising measure of reverence, especially in light of its occasional use as a decanter for fine wine, or even, as in Stewart Cink's case after his 2009 win, for pouring barbecue sauce.

"At no stage did I put any fluid in it at all," said Clarke, while avoiding criticism of Cink. "It is just too special a trophy. I have so much respect for the Open Championship, and I couldn't get myself to do it."

This came, of course, from one of the happier imbibers on the tour.

"I thought about it a few times," Clarke said.

Clarke will play this week's tournament on the turns, traps and tricky terrain of Royal Lytham & St. Anne's as No. 84 in the world. Do not expect lightning to strike again. This year's road will probably rise up to meet somebody else.

Darren Clarke has had his time and knows it.

"The lows of losing put you in a position to appreciate the joys of winning," he said.

"And that was certainly my case."