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Dublin: 9°C Saturday 15 May 2021

In the swing: mental approach pays Major dividends for Darren

In this week’s column, Neil Cullen reflects on the unexpected success of Northern Ireland’s newest Major champion.

Darren Clarke celebrates with the Claret Jug during the Winner's Photocall.
Darren Clarke celebrates with the Claret Jug during the Winner's Photocall.
Image: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/Press Association Images

DARREN CLARKE! WHO saw that coming?

I’d love to know if anyone actually did tip Darren Clarke and for them to explain their logic. I wrote last week how the Open has a habit of throwing up surprise winners – well, Sunday’s outcome was beyond even what I expected.

But take nothing away from big Darren. He very much deserved it given the way he played, and indeed with how he has played over the course of an entire career. We cannot forget that this is a man who has won over 20 times as a professional and has been ranked in the top 10 in the world.

Over the four days of the Open, he was at his best. The quality of his iron play was similar to what we witnessed from Rory McIlroy at the US Open. Almost every iron shot gave him a birdie chance. Even when Phil Mickelson made a run at the lead early on Sunday, it was because he got on a hot streak with the putter, not because he was giving himself easy chances.

Clarke’s putting was a worry, for me, on Sunday morning. He had shown signs at various stages over the opening three rounds, particularly early on Saturday, that the putter could prove to be his Achilles’ heel. That’s why his par putt on the very first green was absolutely crucial.

Golf is one of those games where one little shot can make a huge difference to a round, and that putt was a perfect example. I’ve written it in columns before, but putting is where momentum is won and lost. Obviously you need to be hitting the ball well, but that was taken as given for Clarke at the weekend. The putting was crucial and to make a 15-foot par save like he did on the first is a very good way to start a round.

“Let your attitude determine your game”

The way Darren Clarke approached his final round, and indeed the entire tournament, was also interesting. A big emphasis was clearly put on the mental side of the game.

What goes on between professional sportspeople and their psychologists is very much an unknown to the amateur who watches from the comfort of their sofa. There’s no point in even trying to decipher what was said to Clarke or what it was that put him in the right frame of mind, but there’s no doubting that his psychologist Bob Rotella had a big hand in Clarke’s victory.

We saw the two spend time together both on the range and the putting green before rounds, but the calm, serene confidence of Clarke in his interview was something we are not necessarily accustomed to seeing.

Ken Brown informed viewers of the BBC that Rotella’s influence on Clarke was particularly important this week. He should know. As Clarke was hitting some practice bunker shots in the minutes before his tee time on Sunday, Ken could be seen giving Clarke some final words of encouragement.

When Ken returned to the commentary box later on in the afternoon, he came bearing a simple mantra: “let your attitude determine your game, don’t let your game determine your attitude.”

It’s simple, but effective if you take it on board.

Sports psychology is particularly intriguing. It’s all well and good throwing out these mantras and philosophies, but the player has to buy into them and believe in them. That must come from a great trust in the ability of those around you and also a great desire to win.

What may have come as a surprise to viewers and fans doesn’t seem to have been as such to the man himself. In Sunday’s aftermath, he spoke of how he always believed he could still win a Major, even at 42 years of age.

That’s the kind of belief it takes to win a Major. But on top of belief, you need the game to back it up and little bit of luck along the way as well.

Clarke believes his best years could still be ahead of him. It was a surprise to see him win this weekend, but such was his performance that we won’t be as presumptuous next time around.

READ - Clarke almost quit, according to agent >

READ - What Darren did next: 6 things to come for the Ulsterman >

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