Irish eyes smiling as Clarke wins Open

SANDWICH, England Sun Jul 17, 2011 10:05pm BST

1 of 7. Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland kisses the Claret Jug after winning the British Open golf championship at Royal St George's in Sandwich, southern England July 17, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Eddie Keogh

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SANDWICH, England (Reuters) - Darren Clarke repelled a dynamic charge from Phil Mickelson to complete a runaway three-shot win at the British Open on Sunday, claiming his first major title and becoming the first home winner of the championship for 12 years.

The 42-year-old Briton picked up the coveted Claret Jug, a first prize of 900,000 pounds ($1.45 million) and an extra bonus of two million pounds from his kit sponsor after firing a level-par 70 on Sunday to finish five-under par.

He also becomes the 12th different winner of the last 12 majors as the United States missed out for an unprecedented sixth in a row.

U.S. Ryder Cup team mates Mickelson (68) and Dustin Johnson (72) were tied for second place while Dane Thomas Bjorn (71), denied victory by a sad, late collapse when the event was last played at Sandwich in 2003, was fourth on 279.

"It's been a dream since I was a kid to win the Open and I was able to do it," said Clarke, who could even afford to finish with two bogies such was his dominance of the field.

"It just feels incredible. I've been unbelievably comfortable and confident in my own ability this week. This is for my two kids, they'll be very proud," he added before acknowledging his late wife Heather who died of cancer in 2006.

Clarke, the overnight leader, looked nerveless at the start even though he cancelled out an early birdie at the second by dropping a stroke at the fourth.

Puffing calmly on a cigarette, seemingly oblivious to the 55 kms an hour winds and the squally showers whistling in from the English Channel, the Northern Irishman was unperturbed by Mickelson's front-nine charge.

The American left-hander, who had just one top-10 finish in 17 previous Open appearances, showed he meant business by blitzing his way to a remarkable best-of-the-tournament front nine of 30, five-under par.

Ignoring the strongest winds of the week at Royal St George's, Mickelson drew level with Clarke at the seventh hole when he rolled in a 20-foot eagle putt.

Clarke, his grey trousers billowing furiously in the breeze, hit back immediately with a matching eagle at the same hole after sinking a 25-footer.

MICKELSON BLUNDER

World number six Mickelson's round then started to spectacularly unravel when he inexplicably missed from two feet at the 11th.

The putter continued to let down the four-times major champion and he missed from seven feet at the 12th and eight feet at the 14th as his challenge petered out.

While Mickelson was stringing together a series of bogeys, Clarke reeled off nine straight pars to the 16th and he could afford to smile as dropped strokes at the last two holes en route to becoming the first home winner since Paul Lawrie's victory at Carnoustie in 1999.

In addition he became Northern Ireland's third major winner in just over a year following the back-to-back U.S. Open victories of Graeme McDowell in 2010 and Rory McIlroy last month.

"We're blessed to have two fantastic players in Rory and G-Mac and I've just come along, the old guy, behind them," said Clarke, whose win rocketed him from 111th in the world rankings into the top 30.

"I think we've just been lucky (in Northern Ireland). To have three major champions from a small, little place in a short period of time is fantastic."

Clarke, playing in the British Open for the 20th time and 54th major, broke the record for most appearances in the championship before securing a debut win.

He is also the oldest winner since Argentine Roberto Di Vicenzo triumphed in the 1967 British Open at the age of 44 and the oldest major champion since American Ben Crenshaw's 1995 U.S. Masters success at the age of 43.

Clarke receives no regular payment for wearing Dunlop clothes when he plays but, under his agreement with Sports Direct, he scooped a bonus of two million pounds for his first major win.

"I think the celebrations could be long...and very enjoyable," he said. "There might be some of the black stuff (Guinness) going into that trophy tonight."

Former world number one Tiger Woods, absent this week because of a long-standing knee injury, tweeted: "I'm very happy for Darren Clarke, a well-deserved win."

Johnson's title challenge was wrecked when he went out of bounds with his second shot at the 14th - though that was eclipsed by the 11 carded by former world number four Henrik Stenson of Sweden at the par-five 14th.

Britain's Tom Lewis, 20, who shared the first-round lead with Bjorn, won the silver medal for the leading amateur.

(Editing by Mitch Phillips)

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