The Nick Townsend Column: 'I'll be there for Darren': Tiger's regard for rival in mourning warms the heart

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A week in which sport's big beasts have not been just stalking their own prey but watching other species approvingly. Tiger Woods turned fan at Flushing Meadows as Roger Federer claimed his ninth Grand Slam tennis title in the US Open; Chelsea's golfing disciple Andriy Shevchenko studied Woods as he prepared for the World Match Play at Wentworth. Woods has also, it transpires, been keeping an approving eye on the soon-to-retire Formula One world champion Michael Schumacher.

It has been less mutual, more a case of multi-admiration. It's called "respect", something Shevchenko's new team-mate Ashley Cole appears to be terribly confused about as he articulates - if that is the correct word - in his autobiography his fury at being offered £55,000 a week by Arsenal rather than £60,000, and claims it is nothing to do with greed.

That is a relevant aside, because at about the same time as the England defender hap-lessly became a photofit parody of the ugly, whining, grasping, petulant, me-me-me face of the national game, even as the ghosted bile was dribbling from his lips in one newspaper's serialisation, the world's No 1 golfer was arriving in London. He was contemplating not so much himself, but the welfare of a Ryder Cup opponent.

One does not have to become maudlin to find something reassuring about Woods' concern for the recently bereaved Darren Clarke; a concern that will continue even as the team ethic re-emerges in the coming week at the K Club in Ireland against a background of all the rancour that the Ryder Cup has produced over the years.

Word had it that Woods had even convinced the cigar-chomping, sartorially innovative Ulsterman to make himself available to the European team captain, Ian Woosnam.

"I am not sure if I persuaded him or not, but I just told him, on several occasions, how I felt about him as a person, and him as a player in particular... that he deserved to be on that team," says Woods of Clarke, whose wife, Heather, died last month after a four-year fight against cancer. "[I said] If Woosie wanted him to get one of the spots on the pitch, I think that he should take it.

"[I told him] He deserves to be on that team, and he has earned that right, from a player perspective; not for what he has gone through and will continue to go through. He is too good not to be on that team." Woosnam agreed, installing Clarke as one of his wild cards.

Woods is speaking at the London headquarters of HSBC, a rare institution who actually earn more annually than the world No 1, and who are sponsoring the Wentworth event.

The aura surrounding him is extraordinary. There is an excited whisper of "Tiger's in the building". It has the same resonance as "Elvis has left the building". Profile is a crucial adjunct of his talent. Minders and schedulers - and probably teeth-pickers too - are constantly in attendance. His dress sense, on or off the course, is invariably restrained.

In contrast, Clarke arrived for the Masters one day clad in magenta shirt and pink slacks, claiming he had prepared for the newly lengthened Augusta National by "bonefishing and having a few beers".

Though not the most obvious kindred spirits, there is an empathy between them that goes back well beyond the death of loved ones. The pair have been comrades for many years, having both been coached by Butch Harmon. "At the golf course we would always play practice rounds together, and we hung out a few times," says Woods. "I think Darren, as a person, is just so much fun. He's a big kid really."

Woods, whose father and mentor, Earl, died earlier this year, also of cancer, adds: "You expect to lose your parent, but you don't expect to lose someone that you think you are going to spend the rest of your life with. That's the major difference between the two. What he's going through, it's so much harder.

"I remember we played together at the Players [Championship at Sawgrass in the spring]. That was actually a really nice pairing for both of us. Heather was not doing well at the time. My dad was doing really bad at the time. It was nice to be able to talk while we were playing about things that we were dealing with. There was a sense of calming, playing with Darren that week.

"Each person grieves differently. For me, the hardest thing was getting back out there and playing, because the person who introduced me to golf was my father. Every fundamental I know in the game of golf was because of my dad. So every time I reverted back to stance, alignment, posture - all the basics that you need - I thought about dad each and every time. That was hard for me.

"With Darren, it's different. I think it's the loss at night. He has no longer got that person he can share things with."

In Ireland this week, Woods will be expected to provide leadership to the US Ryder Cup rookies, but he insists that he will still be there for Clarke.

"No doubt about that," he says. "Hopefully, we can sit next to each other at one of the functions. I will definitely make every effort to help Darren in any way I can."

Clarke's re-emergence in the Madrid Masters this weekend - ironically, carding a first-round four under par as Woods' five- tournament winning sequence came to an ignominious end at Wentworth - will have helped him to refocus on golf.

But the Ryder Cup is something different entirely. Clarke's psyche will be assaulted by many emotions. "It was hard for me," says Woods. "But at least Darren won't come back to arguably one of the hardest venues ever."

He is speaking of Winged Foot, the location for this year's US Open, where he missed the cut. "I think the hardest thing about that lay-off was getting into the competitive rhythm of a round. But the good thing is Darren will be around a lot of other team-mates.

"Being matchplay, it should be a little bit easier for him. All the spouses will be there, which will make it a little harder in a way, but also very comforting."

Back in 1997, Woods was a Ryder virgin at Valderrama. Now he is a "vet", albeit the youngest member of the US team at the age of 30. He is a wounded one, too. Woods' record is seven wins, 11 defeats and two halves from his four appearances. Perhaps he is not ideally designed to interact with team-mates? Oakland Hills two years ago - on the first day, he and Phil Mickelson lost to Clarke and Lee Westwood in the foursomes - could be considered evidence of that.

The world No 1 describes partnering Mickelson as "interesting, because I have never played with anyone left-handed before. We did well, but we just didn't make enough birdies. And we didn't putt well enough, too. Hence we lost both matches."

Woods insists he would have actually relished being involved in a team sport. "I could have, yes," he says. "It's fun to have team-mates round you, because sometimes when you are having your bad days it would be nice to have someone call time- out and take you out of the game for a little bit. In golf, you have just got to continue playing, and that is one of the hardest things about it."

He adds: "In a team event, there is also a different satisfaction level when you succeed. There are more moving parts. You know how much more difficult it is to do that in a team environment than as an individual."

For Woods' Northern Ireland friend and rival, you suspect that just being there is enough.

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