The Open 2021: Meet the man behind Darren Clarke’s unlikely triumph at Royal St George’s

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·4-min read
The Open 2021: Meet the man behind Darren Clarke’s unlikely triumph at Royal St George’s
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Earlier this week, Darren Clarke addressed one of the greatest misconceptions about his victory at The Open in 2011. It had been written into folklore, with a little help from the rapturous and bleary celebrations, that the Northern Irishman had arrived at Sandwich in woeful form. It fanned the disbelief, furthered the legend, and even Rory McIlroy, who had played a practice round with Clarke on the Wednesday, later admitted that “he didn’t look anywhere near being able to win the golf tournament”. The truth, though, was never quite so defeatist.

“I hear people say that I was playing badly early in the week,” Clarke told Golf Digest this week. “But that’s not true. I was not playing badly; I was putting badly. I had won in Majorca maybe a month before the Open. And the week before in the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, I flushed it all week. But I had a poor last day. What saved me here was spending some time with Bob Rotella.”

Rotella, who has been dubbed “the godfather of sports psychology”, has worked with dozens of major champions, including McIlroy, and met Clarke on the putting green at Royal St George’s. “Darren called me and says ‘we need to talk,’” Rotella tells The Independent. “We sat down, it was lightly raining, and he kind of poured himself out for 40 minutes. He told me he was putting so much pressure on his game and he was struggling. After about two hours, we went to the short game area and every time he made a putt the crowd would explode with applause. Darren started laughing and smiling, he became in a great state of mind. He’s the kind of guy that when he’s really happy he get can get unconscious and really play golf.”

The nature of golf can be so consuming, contrived and introspective that Rotella’s first aim can often be just to clear a player’s head. That might seem like a simple task, but few sports are so fickle that one unlucky bounce can alter an entire perspective, and sustained periods of poor form warp the sensibilities of even the world’s best players. “If you have to be the winner to feel like a winner then this game will beat you up,” Rotella says. “You could make 27 birdies but miss a putt on one hole on national television and that’s all anyone remembers. That’s the world players live in so they’ve got to have a way of looking at the game that keeps them in a good place.”

For Clarke, the key was to find a flow state, when a player can be entirely immersed and energised by their performance but still take enjoyment from it. In doing so, the brain takes no heed of the hesitations or doubt that can so often be a player’s kryptonite. After three rounds, armed with that mindset, combined with the skill and ingenuity to outwit any links course, Clarke had surged into a barely imaginable one-shot lead over Dustin Johnson. In that position, though, when prospects are weighed down by reality and the spotlight zeroes in with expectation, remaining unconscious can be an altogether different proposition.

“I met him again on the putting green on Sunday morning and all we talked about was having fun and seeing the shots,” Rotella says. “After we walked to the tee, he gave me a big embrace and said I’m just going to have fun whether I win or lose. At the victory party afterwards, I said to him that I knew he had a chance after that. If he’d said that this was his last chance to win The Open, I wouldn’t have done my job. He said the 17th hole was the first time all day he had a thought of ‘I don’t want to run it by’. He’d lost the focus. But he went on the 18th tee, he told himself just to see the target, hit the shot and let it go. He hit a drive so far and pure he knew it was over.”

Darren Clarke talks with Bob Rotella at the US Open in 2009 (Getty Images)
Darren Clarke talks with Bob Rotella at the US Open in 2009 (Getty Images)

Now, it’s McIlroy who has sought out Rotella’s guidance, and the 2014 Open champion made a point of highlighting their progress together after a cathartic victory at Quail Hollow earlier this year. His personality might be markedly different from Clarke’s, while also being at vastly different stages of their careers, but Rotella’s process has always followed the same guiding principle. “How you get there is very different but you’re trying to get them into a better state of mind when they’re feeling good about themselves,” he says. “That’s the bottom line.”

The clearest evidence of that approach taking effect came from McIlroy himself. “It’s about not being bogged down by who I am or what expectations are,” he told The Guardian. “It’s about loving who I am, loving what I have the opportunity to do, loving the game of golf, loving the position I’m in…. I need to love being Rory McIlroy.” And if that process remains true as it did for Clarke, who dare bet against McIlroy’s own Rotella-inspired major.

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