Darren Clarke admits he fell into the classic Open championship winner’s trap after he fulfilled a lifetime dream and lifted the old Claret Jug at Royal St George’s last year.
It’s a trap that Padraig Harrington knows all too well having once watched a former winner toss a four-iron in disgust and cry: “That’s not the shot of an Open champion.”
Clarke is highly self-critical at the best of times but he’s recognised the error of his ways now and is looking at himself in a different light as he approaches his title defence at Royal Lytham and St Annes next week.
Rather than dwelling on a bitterly disappointing year on the golf course, he’s drawing on the positives of knowing that he came through the toughest test of all and won the big one.
Not only that, he also knows that if he can remain as stoically accepting as he did in Sandwich, he could well match Harrington and hoist the Open Championship for the second year running.
“Being Open champion hasn’t been a burden by any stretch of the imagination,” he told reporters in Portrush this week. “My own expectations have been the burden. They have always been high but they have intensified somewhat.”
He has made just one halfway cut this season — in the Irish Open at Royal Portrush two weeks ago — and fallen from 30th to 84th in the world rankings since winning The Open at the age of 42.
Blaming his poor form on high expectations, Clarke said: “You’d think at the age of 43 and having played in Ryder Cups and won World Golf Championships, I’d be more understanding.
“Yet my desire to do more has got in the way of me playing well. I wanted to play like an Open champion and tried too hard to do it instead of just playing.
“I’d be down here (at Royal Portrush) for nine or ten hours a day in the pouring rain and wind thinking to myself, ‘I’ve got to play better.’ It hasn’t quite worked.
“You don’t get anywhere without practice though and at some stage it will pay off - I don’t know when, but it will.”
The oldest Open champion since Argentina’s Robert de Vicenzo in 1967, Clarke must return the Claret Jug to the R&A’s Peter Dawson on Monday morning.
But he’d like nothing better than to see his name etched on the trophy again on Sunday and believes he can win back-to-back at a venue where he was tied third in 2001 and joint 11th in 1996.
“I’ve had a wonderful time with the Claret Jug,” Clarke said. “I’ve had a wonderful year off the golf course and a tough one on it. To give it back will be tough, but my name is still on it.”
Explaining his determination to win the Open again, Clarke said: “There is much more desire and that has been my problem. I have tried way too hard.
“I haven’t been able to figure out a way of not trying too hard. That has always been my problem.
“I’ve got a taste of winning at the ultimate level at the ultimate tournament, so I know I can do it.
“I know if I get myself in the same position again next weekend, I know I can do it again.”
Planning practice rounds at The Open venue today (Saturday) and tomorrow before attending the R&A’s Junior Open, he admits that he’s in a far more positive frame of mind this year than last.
“You’d think I would be fed up with everything, or down in the dumps, because of the way I have played,” Clarke said. “But I’m not. I’m working away. I’m feeling OK.”
Seeing his name on the Claret Jug sitting in his kitchen every morning gives him a daily boost.
“There are names on that jug that haven’t had as good a career as I’ve had. I’ve had a pretty good career — not a great one — but the game has been good to me.
“I always thought I had enough talent to win a Major Championship and The Open was the one because of my liking for links golf.
“It just so happens that The Open is the biggest and best of all of them. I feel very honoured that my name is on that jug with that great list of champions.”
The bookies have made Clarke a 125/1 chance to retain the title, precisely the same odds they gave him last year.
It’s going to be a challenge but Clarke likes nothing better.
When he played a practice round with newly-crowned US Open champion Rory McIlroy last year, they were joined by Masters winner Charl Schwartzel and 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen.
As they approach the last few holes, Clarke was in one of his moods, so poorly was he putting.
“I was walking 20 yards ahead of the three of them when Rory shouted: ‘Oi! Where’s your Major?’,”
“It was tongue and cheek, but don’t worry, I let them know where it was on the Sunday evening.”