By Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal sports writer
British Open champion Darren Clarke will play the first two rounds of the Bridgestone Invitational with close friend Tiger Woods, a pairing Clarke deemed “brilliant” Tuesday.
In a twosome made in television heaven, Woods and Clarke will go off No. 1 at 1:40 p.m. Thursday and off No. 10 at 9:50 a.m. Friday.
There is no cut in the $8.5 million World Golf Championships event at Akron’s Firestone Country Club, where Woods is making his return after an 11-week injury layoff. It sounds like he’ll receive some ribbing from Clarke, a native of Northern Ireland, who met Woods when they played together at the 1996 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes when Woods was still an amateur. They later shared the same swing coach, Butch Harmon.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’ve got the opportunity to play with Tiger in his first tournament back,” Clarke said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to give him a little bit of stick and make him laugh the first couple of days.”
Asked what made the two of them click, Clarke said, “Similar build, similar color, similar stature,” drawing laughter.
“I don’t know. We just got on really well,” Clarke said. “He sort of got my sense of humor, and I got his. We spent a little bit of time together in Vegas. He’s been a very, very good friend to me over a very long period of time.”
Clarke voiced his appreciation for the encouraging texts he received from Woods during last month’s British Open at Royal St. George’s, where Clarke captured his first major at age 42. Neither would reveal what Woods’ messages said.
“It was great to see Darren play well,” Woods said. “He’s gone through a lot in his life. To see him win an Open championship, and the one that he covets the most, that’s very special to him, and the way he did it was very impressive. He really put it on the boys on Sunday, which was good to see.”
Clarke received support from Woods during his late wife Heather’s battle with breast cancer and now seems to be paying him back. As Woods returns from knee and Achilles injuries and seeks to rebuild his image following a sex scandal, Clarke expressed his faith in Woods. Clarke said he’s also offered Woods advice.
“He was arguably the best player the game has ever seen,” Clarke said of Woods. “I’ve won just one major, he’s got buckets of them. It would be a little bit presumptuous of me to tell him what to do. I’ve told him what I think about what he’s doing golf-swing wise and stuff. Sometimes he takes it in and sometimes he doesn’t.
“I genuinely hope he gets his game back up to the level that it was before because it was awesome.”
Frenchman Thomas Levet withdrew, reducing the field to 76. Levet has not played since July 3, when he suffered a small fracture in his shin when he jumped in a lake to celebrate his victory in the Alstom Open de France.
Surprisingly, Clarke said he had yet to drink anything out of the Claret Jug. “I’m a little bit of a traditionalist, and I didn’t think it would be right to put anything in there,” he said. “I’m not saying I won’t. Maybe Christmas dinner or Christmas lunch I might have a little bit of claret in there.” … Clarke said he received notes from Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and the prime minister and president of Ireland after his victory. … Woods hopes to play his way onto the Fred Couples-captained U.S. Presidents Cup team for the Nov. 17-20 competition at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Australia. But Woods ranks 26th in the standings and only the top 10 automatically qualify. He hasn’t missed a Presidents Cup since he turned pro in 1996.