By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- A year ago, Darren Clarke was surprised to find himself with a locker in the champions area at Royal St. George's.
That is, until he realized Greg Norman had withdrawn and learned the real reason. Seems the R&A was looking for someone who might fit in with the previous winners and not make any waves.
Little did anyone know how prescient a choice Clarke would be as the enormously popular Northern Irishman went to beat Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson by three strokes later that week.
"I couldn't quite figure out, why am I in this locker, and it was due to the late withdrawal of Greg Norman that Mr. (Peter) Dawson decided, well, who (can) we put in there that won't offend anybody, that won't do anything," Clarke recalled. "... And this year I'm back in the same area, the champions' area, but having won it, I've earned my place in that part of the locker room this time."
Clarke returned the Claret Jug to Dawson as cameras flashed on Monday, albeit a wee tad worse for wear. The affable 43-year-old won't reveal exactly what happened -- except that he didn't drop it and the venerable trophy wasn't in his possession when whatever happened, happened.
"I shall say no more," he said mischievously.
Over the last 12 months, the Claret Jug has accompanied Clarke to many places, including a few countries where the small silver trophy had never been seen. He relished the opportunity to show it off, too.
"It's one of those iconic trophies that people see on television but never actually physically get to see it," Clarke said. "... A lot of people have pictures with it, and they all enjoyed it as much as I did."
And believe it or not, Clarke never joined generations of champions in taking a drink out of the Claret Jug. Its replica, yes, but the actual trophy, no.
"I just decided that the trophy was too special for me to put anything into it," Clarke said. "I was tempted on the Sunday evening and the Monday evening and the Tuesday evening and the Wednesday evening and for about two weeks afterwards. I never managed to put anything into it. But I just thought, no, I can't do it."
Clarke admitted he hasn't followed up his career-defining victory with the kind of golf he had hoped. Like so many other major winners, Clarke found himself in the trap of trying to play "like the Open champion instead of playing the way that I played up and down in the first place." So he is still looking for his first top-10 finish 10 starts into the 2012 season.
"That's something that I did struggle with for a while, you know, for me and my goals The Open Championship is the biggest and best tournament in the world, and from the day that I lifted a club and started playing, this is all I ever wanted to do was win The Open Championship," Clarke said. "It took me quite some time to reflect upon it and see where I wanted to go after I'd won it. I struggled with that for quite some time, and then when I did then start practicing every hour of the day, it wasn't quite clicking into place.
"Maybe now that I've given the Jug back for this week, maybe I'll get back to playing the way I can play."