- Associated Press - Sunday, July 17, 2011

SANDWICH, England — Another major goes to Northern Ireland. The surprise was Darren Clarke’s name on the claret jug.

Ten years after he last contended in a major, no longer in the top 100 in the world, Clarke delivered his defining moment Sunday in the British Open when he held off brief challenges from Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson to win golf’s oldest championship.

The weather was so wild that heavy rain changed to sunshine, back and forth all afternoon, while the wind was relentless.

Clarke was a steady presence through it all.

A 20-foot eagle putt on the seventh hole gave him the lead for good, and he didn’t drop a shot until it no longer mattered. With bogeys on the last two holes, Clarke closed with a par 70 for a three-shot victory over the two Americans.

“Pretty amazing right now,” Clarke said, the claret jug at his side. “It’s been a dream since I’ve been a kid to win the Open, like any kid’s dream is, and I’m able to do it, which just feels incredible.”

Northern Ireland had gone 63 years without a major. Now it has three of the past six - Graeme McDowell in the U.S. Open last year at Pebble Beach, followed by Rory McIlroy at the U.S. Open in a record performance last month at Congressional, and now the 42-year-old Clarke.

Northern Ireland…. Golf capital of the world!!” McIlroy tweeted as Clarke played the last hole.

“We’re blessed to have two fantastic players in Rory and GMac, and I’ve just come along, the only guy coming along behind them,” Clarke said.

“We have fantastic golf courses, we have fantastic facilities, but to have three major champions from a little, small place in a short period of time, it’s just incredible.”

They are so close that a week after McIlroy won the U.S. Open, Clarke pulled out of a tournament in Germany so he could return to Northern Ireland and join the celebration.

They always were for someone else. Clarke had reason to believe his best celebrations were behind him. Surely, nothing could top playing a Ryder Cup on home soil in Ireland five years ago and leading Europe to victory just one month after his wife, Heather, died of cancer.

“In terms of what’s going through my heart, there’s obviously somebody who is watching down from up above there, and I know she’d be very proud of me,” Clarke said. “She’s probably be saying, ‘I told you so.” ‘

Indeed, this was overdue.

No one had ever gone more than 15 starts in the British Open until winning, and this was the 20th try for Clarke. Yet even as he struggled with his game and the adjustment of raising two boys without their mother, and as the spotlight shifted to youth, Clarke never gave up on his dreams.

“I always believed I would get myself back up here,” he said before heading out to the 18th green to collect the oldest trophy in golf. “I always believed I had enough talent to challenge and win one.”

He delivered on the demanding links of Royal St. George’s to hold off Mickelson and Johnson.

Mickelson, rarely a threat in this major, made up a five-shot deficit in seven holes and was only one shot behind after a birdie on the 10th until he started missing short putts. He shot 38 on the back nine, hitting his final approach into the grandstand.

Then it was Johnson’s turn. In the final group of a major for the third time in six years, Johnson made two birdies early on the back nine and was only two shots behind when his second shot to the par-4 15th went out of bounds, ending his hopes again.