Clarke: Tiger the best the world has ever seen

DARREN CLARKE last night stood up for Tiger Woods and gave the former world number one a ringing endorsement as a human being and not just a golfing machine with myriad personal problems to solve.

The 14-time major winner hasn’t won a tournament since a string of extra-marital affairs became public knowledge at the end of 2009, costing him his marriage and sending him tumbling to 28th in the world this week.

The American, who has missed the last two majors through left knee and Achilles injuries, could not have asked for a better partner for the first two rounds of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational than Clarke as he returns to action for the first time in three months.

He was rooting hard for the 42-year old Dungannon man as he aimed to break his major duck at Sandwich just over a fortnight ago, sending his Irish friend several detailed texts full of advice on how to get over the line at Royal St George’s.

Woods felt for Clarke when his friend lost his wife Heather to breast cancer in 2006, famously embracing him on the 16th green at the K Club just a few weeks after her death as the beer-swigging, cigar-chomping Irishman claimed his three points of three for Europe in that record-equalling Ryder Cup win.

Like millions worldwide, the Americans found it easy to root for Clarke as he came down the stretch at Royal St George’s. But when asked why the world should cheer for Woods, Clarke eloquently explained that there is a human being beneath the facade that is Tiger.

“Because beneath it all, beneath all the stuff that’s happened, self-inflicted or otherwise, he is essentially a really good kid, a man, beneath everything.” Clarke said. “You know, sometimes his media image has been portrayed in a very poor, poor way.

“But underneath it all, he has been a tremendous friend to me and there’s a really good side to Tiger Woods that unfortunately, nobody ever gets a chance to see. That’s why.”

Woods was equally eloquent in his praise of Clarke’s tremendous major championship breakthrough.

“Darren’s been through a lot in his life, losing Heather,” Woods said. “So for him to find happiness with his two boys and to watch him win the Open was pretty cool.”

The pair met for the first time at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s in 1996, when Woods was still an amateur. And Woods has remained a good friend since and enjoyed his share of good times with the Irish star in Las Vegas, when they were both pupils of Butch Harmon

“He’s always been a great friend to me, and we’ve been great friends for a long time going back to when we both worked with Butch a long time ago,” Woods said. “It was great to see Darren play well [at Sandwich]. He’s gone through a lot in his life, and to see him — I think he’s 42 now — 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 went out and played very well and really put it on the boys on Sunday, which was good to see.”

The pairing of Woods and Clarke will see the renewal of a rivalry that began at La Costa in 2000, when Clarke handed the American a 4 and 3 defeat.

They’ve clashed many times since and while Woods has come out on top more times than Clarke cares to remember, he left the former world number one six shots in his wake here in 2003, when he captured the WGC-NEC Invitational title for his second World Golf Championship victory.

It’s ironic that two golfers who were being written off as yesterday’s men just three months ago are now in the marquee group in a World Golf Championship and Clarke is certainly looking forward to seeing where Woods is with his game.

“Everybody including myself is excited about him coming back to play again,” Clarke said.

He respects Woods tremendously as a golfer and while he would never dare to offer advice, he’s seven years older and wiser. He’s also keen to see the real Tiger again.

“You’ve got Jack and Tiger and he was arguably the best player the world has ever seen,” Clarke said. “I’ve just won one major. He’s got buckets of them. It would be a little bit presumptuous of me to tell him what to do.

“But in saying that, I’ve told him what I think about what he’s doing golf swing wise and stuff and sometimes he takes it in and sometimes he doesn’t take it in.

“He has been the best player in the world and one of the best players to ever play the game and I just genuinely hope he gets his game back up to the level that it was (at) before, because it was awesome.”

Clarke hopes to go on and challenge for more majors before he retires but having said that Woods set the “benchmark” by which he and others have measured themselves for most than a decade, he’s keen to see him return to action.

He might even give him some stick.

“I don’t think anybody give him that much stick,” Clarke said. “But no. He’s been a very very good friend to me over a long period of time. I’ve got no idea why, but we just get on very well.”

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