Bridgestone International: Darren Clarke back on course with Tiger Woods
Written off as has-beens just a few weeks ago, Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods will once again command the spotlight together this week. So much for the new generation.
When the Bridgestone Invitational tees off here tomorrow, the focus will be back on the reunion of two old friends whose rivalry lit up many a World Golf Championship event.
Of course, the interest has lots to with yet another long-awaited return of Woods; and marginally less to do with Clarke's Claret Jug from nowhere.
The PGA Tour were instantly accused of “pandering” to Woods by the Golf Channel, but they didn't mind.
The organisers couldn't resist putting them out as twosome, while aware that never so much fuss will ever be made of the players ranked Nos 28 and 31 in the world respectively.
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, 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 — who was named the European Tour's golfer of the month for July yesterday — found particularly useful as he at last found the wherewithal to thrust himself into the big time.
Entry into this $8.5m event (no cut, around $35,000 for last place) is his first reward and he was also delighted with the news.
“Am I? I didn't know,” said Clarke when told.
“It's a good draw, yeah. We're good friends and have spent lots of good times together on the golf course before. We've had a few battles on the course – a few in WGC events, yeah.
“But more importantly than any of that is that it's nice to see him back playing.”
There will no doubt be some ribbing of their past WGC showdowns and don't be surprised in the Ulster lilt booms loudest.
“I beat him in the final of the Accenture [World Match Play in 2000] and then he was in pack chasing me when I won here [in 2003],” said Clarke (pictured).
World number one Luke Donald partners Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and world number two Lee Westwood, who a year ago had to pull out of the tournament with a leg injury, is with Ryder Cup team-mate Graeme McDowell.
Rory McIlroy, McDowell's successor as US Open champion, plays with defending champion Hunter Mahan in his first start in America since his eight-shot success in Washington in June.
Many believe Tiger is in danger of needing a search party, but after his 12-week absence he cut an assured, if familiarly assured, figure in his press conference.
“I'm good to go,” said Woods.
“The docs gave me the clearance, so here I am. I started practising a couple of weeks ago and was close to playing last week.
“But again the doctors advised me that maybe 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 – who Tiger sacked “man to man” last month – is a childhood friend who was accused by three of Woods mistresses as organising their travel in the secret trysts.
“Bryan 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.
Woods evaded answering whether having a novice caddie would be a disadvantage – although he did admit “Stevie helped my career” – and responded to every question concerning his expectations this week with his traditional “I'm here to try to win”.
Few expect him to, despite the seven victories he boasts at Firestone. Last year he finished at 18-over, 78th out of the 80-man field. Regardless of his apparent confidence the pervading view is that 2010 provides the most reliable formline.
Meanwhile, Ryder Cup player Ross Fisher has withdrawn from this week's tournament in America to stay with his wife and their ill three-month-old son Harry.
Fisher's defence of the Irish Open title last week took a back seat when the baby was taken to hospital in Killarney on Saturday night.