Darren Clarke speaking at Firestone Country Club on Tuesday. Picture by Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ieWhen Darren Clarke won The Open at Sandwich just over two weeks ago, his good friend Tiger Woods was one of millions of golf fans rooting for the fun-loving Ulsterman from his couch at home in Florida.

But on hearing the news that he had been paired with Woods for the first two rounds of this week’s World Golf Championship Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, Clarke eloquently explained why the world should root for Woods for a change.

Pilloried worldwide for his failings off the course, the fallen 14-time major champion has been forced to eat humble pie both on and off the golf course for close to two years. Yet Clarke believes he knows a different Tiger - the kid beneath the scowl and the scandals.

So why root for Tiger?

Tiger Woods is happy he’s playing with Darren Clarke in Akron this week. Picture by Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie“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.” world No 31 Clarke said of the world No 28. “You know, sometimes his media image has been portrayed in a very poor, poor way, some that again, from some of the stuff he’s been through.

“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 - a victory he had lived vividly as he sent his Irish friend texts of encouragement throughout.

“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.”

Woods added: “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.

“It was great to see Darren play well. 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 in the final of the Accenture Match Play Championship.

Darren Clarke is a happy man these days. Picture by Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ieThey’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.

The loss of his wife Heather to breast cancer in 2006 put the Ulsterman’s bid for major glory on hold for several years as he dedicated more time to his young sons.

Clarke’s game deserted him for a while but having finally scaled the mountain top in Sandwich last month, he confessed that he has picked up the phone and given Woods some words of encouragement from time to time. Why? Out of friendship. He wants to see old 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 before, because it was awesome.”