STRAFFAN, Ireland - The tears flowed freely. Darren Clarke hugged too many people to count.
Ian Woosnam unlocked himself from one of those embraces, then took Clarke’s arm and lifted it into the air — a champion’s salute for a player who was every bit a champion and more.
Six weeks after his wife, Heather, died of cancer, Clarke got to celebrate camaraderie, friendship and a European victory Sunday in the Ryder Cup. He shed tears of sadness and joy.
Who says sports are only fun and games?
“It means everything to me,” Clarke said.
There was a time when the 38-year-old Irishman wasn’t sure he’d even play in the event — a natural reaction given the way he felt after Heather’s death. Only time can heal a wound like that, he said.
But he came anyway. And won. All three of his matches. That helped the Europeans in their 18½-9½ romp over the Americans. The emotional lift he provided was key, too.
“Every single one of us have dedicated this to her,” said Woosnam, the European captain.
For a brief time, the ending of this magical week had a chance of being almost too perfect, too storybook.
Indeed, it looked like Clarke might have had the honor of sinking the putt that gave Europe the outright victory. He knew it and conceded it was hard to stay focused after he took a 4-up lead over Zach Johnson and saw how the rest of the scoreboard was shaking out.
“I found it very difficult to not get ahead of myself and keep my emotions in check when it was obvious it could come down to my putt,” Clarke said. “I lost myself a few times out there.”
As it turned out, Henrik Stenson put the match away a few minutes earlier on the 15th green. Still, the real celebration came minutes later, on 16, after Clarke finished off his win.
It had to happen there.
American captain Tom Lehman gave Clarke a long hug. So did good friend Tiger Woods. Clarke buried his face in Woosnam’s shoulder, and the two embraced, the captain whispering in Clarke’s ear about how this was destiny. His teammates were there, and so were his parents, Godfrey and Hettie.
Both teammates and opponents alike said they were amazed at Clarke’s spirit and his play under such difficult circumstance.
“For him just to be here is one thing, but on top of that, to go out there and play as well as he did was absolutely remarkable,” said Woods, whose father died earlier this year. “It puts things in perspective real quick for you when you lose people who are close to you.”
Johnson said he felt like he was in a football stadium as he walked up to the first tee box Sunday, a rolling thunder of applause drenching the course.
“Very inspiring for him, I would imagine,” Johnson said. “I felt like I was the away team playing for a world championship. Frankly, it was like that on every tee box for him. Well-deserved, too.”
Clarke said there were too many people to list when asked who helped him make it through the week. He never wavered from the commitment, though.
“It’s been a difficult week,” Clarke said. “But from the minute I got here, from the minute I made myself available, I was determined to make myself ready, and I was. I played the way Woosie wanted me to.”
Clarke once was described by John Hopkins of The Times of London as a good-natured fellow who “knows the outside of a cigar, the inside of a Ferrari and the bottom of a glass of Guinness.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
“There are too many to list,” Clarke said. “To be here all week, my team has been unbelievable. The American guys, the support they’ve shown me has been incredible. The crowd, since Friday morning. It’s something I’ll treasure forever.”
Ryder Cup rout
Top images from Europe’s win over U.S
Latest golf video
Perry sinks tremendous shot while standing in the sand
Kenny Perry gets himself out of trouble by sinking a beautiful shot while standing in the bunker. Perry has the lead after three rounds of the Senior PGA Championship.
Top 10 'accessible' golf courses
From California to Florida, these amazing greens are open for anyone to play.