When Darren Clarke stages his reunion with Tiger Woods here in the first two rounds of the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, he would like to hear the cheers ring out for his friend and long-time rival. And his reasons are based on the personal as well as the professional.
"Beneath it all, beneath all the stuff that's happened, self-inflicted or otherwise, he's essentially a good kid," said Clarke. "He has been a tremendous friend to me and there's a really good side to Tiger Woods that, unfortunately nobody ever gets the chance to see. That's why people should root for him."
What will undoubtedly help Woods on yet another long-awaited return here, is the "draw". The PGA Tour was instantly accused by the influential Golf Channel of "pandering" to Woods by teaming him up in such a cosy two-ball. But the organisers could not resist. Never will so much fuss be made of the players ranked Nos 28 and 31 in the world playing together.
Woods expressed his pleasure. "It'll be fun," he said, back as a competitor after three months on the sidelines with injuries to his left knee and Achilles. "We've been great friends a long time. He's gone through a lot in his life and, at 42, to see him win an Open [three weeks ago], the major he covets most, was very special." Woods confirmed he had sent Clarke text messages during Sandwich, but refused to divulge their content.
Sources explain they were detailed mental tips, which Clarke found particularly useful as he at last found the wherewithal to thrust himself into the big time. Entry into his £5.2m event (no cut, £35,000 for last place) is his first reward and he was also delighted with the draw. "Am I? I didn't know," said Clarke when told of his pairing by The Independent. "It's a good draw, yeah. We've spent lots of good times together on the golf course before. We've had a few battles on the on the course – a few in WGC events, yeah. But more important than any of that is that it's nice to see him back playing."
There will no doubt be some ribbing over Woods and Clarke's past WGC showdowns and do not be surprised if it is the Ulster lilt that booms loudest, particularly as Clarke beat him here in 2003. When asked why the two of them click as friends Clarke responded: "Similar build, similar colour, similar stature."
After the uproar had stopped, he outlined why. "I give him stick and I don't know anybody gives him that much stick," said Clarke. "He's got my sense of humour and I've got his. It's been that way since we met at the 1996 Open at Lytham, when he was an amateur and we were both with Butch [Harmon, the coach].
Woods is in need of a friend as he steps back into the unforgiving arena, although yesterday he cut an assured, if familiarly guarded, figure in his press conference. "I'm good to go," said Woods. "I started practising a couple of weeks ago and was close to playing last week. But the docs advised me I should take another week. I started pushing it pretty hard in training and I feel good now."
Woods revealed he had been hitting his driver for "two to three weeks", but only started working with coach Sean Foley last Friday. He played 18 holes at Atlanta Athletic Club – the venue for next week's USPGA – on Monday and nine holes here yesterday.
He was in the company of his temporary caddie, Bryon Bell. The man filling in for Steve Williams – whom Tiger sacked "man to man" last month – is a childhood friend. "Bryon and I are very comfortable on the golf course," he said, alluding to the fact Bell has caddied for him three times before and was on his bag when he won the Buick Invitational in 1999.
Tiger's tournament wins
The 35-year-old has 14 major victories, which is the second best total behind Jack Nicklaus (18), but has not won one in three years. He also holds records for the largest margin of victory at the US Open (15 shots) – the most dominant major win to date – and the Masters (12 shots).
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