Tiger Woods to play with Darren Clarke

When Tiger Woods returns to the PGA Tour after an 11-week layoff on Thursday at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, he'll do so playing alongside a longtime friend.

Woods will be paired with reigning British Open champion Darren Clarke, who said he received texts from Woods after claiming his first major championship at the age of 42 last month at Royal St. George's.

"I'm looking forward to it," Clarke said Tuesday. "I've got the opportunity to play with Tiger in his first tournament back. I think it's brilliant. Hopefully, I'm able to give him a little bit of stick and make him laugh a little bit the first couple of days."

In his career, Woods has won seven times at this week's venue -- Firestone Country Club -- but hit bottom on the golf course there last year when he shot 18 over par and finished 30 shots behind winner Hunter Mahan.

Woods has also said he'll play next week's PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club where, according to PGA.com, he practiced on Monday.

Woods and Clarke first played together at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in the 1996 British Open, Woods' final major before turning pro. They hit it off immediately and have remained friends, even after Clarke took him down in the final of the Match Play Championship at La Costa in 2000, when both worked under Butch Harmon.

How could two players who seem so opposite be such good friends?

"He sort of got my sense of humor and I got his," Clarke said. "I give him a little stick and what have you. I don't think anybody gives him that much stick. He's been a very, very good friend to me over a very long period of time. I've got no idea why, but we just get on very well."

It was suggested to him Tuesday that it was easy to root for Clarke, followed by this question: Why should someone root for Tiger Woods?

"Good question," Clarke said, pausing briefly. "Because beneath it all, beneath all the stuff that's happened, self-inflicted or otherwise, he's essentially a really good kid -- a man -- beneath everything. Sometimes his media image has been portrayed in a very poor, poor way, some of that, again, from some of the stuff that he's been through. But underneath it all, he has been a tremendous friend to me.

"And there's a real good side to Tiger Woods that nobody ever fortunately gets a chance to see. That's why."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.