5:44 a.m. Grey Goatee Mean Time
The opening tee shot of The Open at Royal Portrush belonged to the 2011 Champion Golfer of the Year, a 50-year-old Northern Irishman swinging around the tournament’s most impressive belly.
Darren Clarke’s drive drew nicely onto the right edge of the fairway, drawing huzzahs from the first-tee grandstands. His second shot curled to 17 feet, and his putt from there earned a birdie and a broad grin from Clarke.
A television camera caught him lighting a cigarette after his tee shot on No. 3, and the grin only widened. Don’t expect an apology anytime soon.
“Well, (I’m) sort of maybe not the healthiest nor smartest or fittest guy, whatever, so maybe it resonated a little bit with the crowd more than some of the other ones,” he said last August in explaining his appeal for the galleries at his Champions Tour debut at the Boeing Classic near Seattle.
“But the crowds, they’ve always been very good to me.”
His training before the Boeing did not involve fasting or specially concocted coffee.
“(B)asically hanging out … down in the Bahamas, practicing and playing, doing a little bit of fishing, eating too much, drinking too much. Doing as you do in the Bahamas, having a good time.”
Let your eyes moisten for a moment, friends, as you dare to imagine Clarke contending to the end, then stepping forward Sunday behind that fulsome belly to claim his second Claret Jug, eight years after the first.
With only 67 holes to go, the dream is alive. The television announcers were excessively pleased to intone, “Darren Clarke is leading The Open,” after he birdied three of his first five holes.
Dry up, fools. It won’t happen. It doesn’t need to.
The champion golfer of the ages here in his homeland, the owner of the unbreakable grin and the unruly belly, owns this day.