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Sunday, July 17, 2011
Clarke and his little country that could


Admittedly, the best storylines from Darren Clarke's win at the Open Championship are those that can't be quantified. The story of Clarke's long road back from the 2006 death of his wife has been told elsewhere. And while Clarke's first major championship is above all a personal triumph, we would be remiss to not examine its implications for his homeland of Northern Ireland.

With Clarke's win, golfers from Northern Ireland have now three of the last six majors. That means that over the last 13 months, Northern Ireland (population approximately 1.8 million) has won exactly as many major titles as the rest of the globe (population approximately 6.9 billion).

Clarke's win comes less than a month after his countryman Rory McIlroy's U.S. Open win at Congressional. Northern Ireland is the first country other than the U.S. to have different golfers win consecutive majors in more than a century. Prior to Sunday, it hadn't happened since 1910, when Scotland's Alex Smith and James Braid won U.S. Open and Open Championship, respectively.

If a golfer of Clarke's nationality winning a major title isn't unusual, one of his age and recent major pedigree certainly is. At 42, Clarke is the oldest first-time major champion since Tom Kite won the 1992 U.S. Open, also at 42. And the sight of Clarke near the top of a major leaderboard on Sunday is something that hadn't been seen in quite some time entering 2011. Clarke played in 12 majors from 2006-10, missing the cut 12 times and never finishing better than his tie for 22nd at the 2002 Masters.

Then again, predicting major champions is harder than ever. After Clarke's win, 12 different golfers have now won the last 12 majors, including six straight first-time major winners.

Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson shared runner-up honors at 2-under, leading the pack of five Americans who finished tied for fifth or better. Despite the multiple American flags near the top of the leaderboard, the U.S. now has no wins in the last six major championships, a streak that started after Mickelson's win at last year's Masters. It's the longest streak of majors played ever without an American winner.