PALM HARBOR, Fla. – On Friday as Tiger Woods was turning back the clock at the Valspar Championship, Paul Casey skillfully straddled the line between fan and competitor the way a player who has been a witness to greatness could.
“If I don't win this week I want Tiger to win. I'm afraid to say that,” he shrugged.
It was a common theme among Woods’ PGA Tour frat brothers. As competitive as the game can be at the highest level, there’s no better story in sports than a reclamation project, even among contemporaries.
For the better part of four days at Innisbrook Resort, Woods awoke the ghosts of past greatness with impressive flair. He opened with rounds of 70-68 to head into the weekend just two strokes off the lead, and on Day 3 he was nearly flawless on his way to a 67 to trim a shot off that advantage.
The anticipation was palpable and wide reaching. Historic crowds swarmed to the Copperhead Course to get a glimpse of the moment Woods completed the comeback and won his first Tour event in 1,680 days.
Unlike the 2015 Wyndham Championship, the last time Tiger began a Sunday with a legitimate chance, this promised no false hope. There were no qualifiers, no excuses and seemingly no doubts.
Healthy, happy and hungry, this was Woods’ event to win.
Maybe it was a sign of the changing times or the byproduct of an exceedingly small sample window, the Valspar Championship was Woods’ fourth official event since undergoing fusion surgery on his lower back in April, but the Sunday everyone anticipated was late to transpire and when it did it was too little, too late.
Woods played his first 16 holes in even par, taking the lead briefly with a birdie at the first only to drift back into the pack with a bogey at No. 4. That was followed by a parade of routine pars and iron shots that simply weren’t close enough to gain any kind of momentum and left a massive gallery that had little to cheer for for the first time all week.
Through three rounds, it seemed for the first time on a course not named Augusta National you could track the action by the direction and intensity of the cheers.
When his tee shot sailed to 44 feet at the 17th hole, Woods was two strokes behind Casey and the outcome seemed just as preordained.
Casey, who’d teed off an hour and 20 minutes before the leaders, was awaiting his fate in the locker room, a few par 4s away from the action on the 17th hole, but when Woods’ birdie putt dropped into the hole the Englishman didn’t need an update.
Moments later, Casey was able to again read the room. This time it was a chorus of anguish as Tiger’s birdie attempt from 37 feet at the 72nd hole came up short. Like that the air was pulled from Innisbrook.
“I had a chance today,” lamented Woods, who clearly had no interest in moral victories.
Throughout this comeback, Woods has taken a long-view approach. Baby steps, not breakthroughs, have been the focus, but with the stars aligned perfectly and his game as complete as it’s been since 2013 it was difficult to keep things in perspective in the hurried moments following his round.
“I was close. I had a chance today,” said Woods, who closed with a 70 to tie for second place with Patrick Reed at 9 under par. “Unfortunately I just didn't quite feel as sharp as I needed to with my irons, played a little conservative because of it. I just needed to handle the par 5s a little better.”
Even Casey, who is nearly nine years removed from his last PGA Tour victory, was surprised by the outcome. He has, after all, spent his entire career watching Woods defy the odds and make the extraordinary seem standard.
Before Casey teed off on Sunday five strokes off the lead, he shared the view of the vast majority of fans that this would be Woods’ comeback exclamation point.
“I actually thought he was going to win today before the round started. I thought it was just teed up beautifully for him,” said Casey, who birdied three consecutive holes starting at the 11th and scrambled for pars at the three closing holes on his way to a 6-under 65 and a 10-under total.
Like most who have watched Woods make the impossible look easy for the better part of two decades, Casey figured that settling back into his winning ways was as easy as slipping into a red shirt and black pants. Maybe even Woods allowed himself such an indulgence.
Lost in the disappointment of Woods’ defeat, however, is the degree of difficulty involved with winning at the highest level after two years of competitive inactivity and four back surgeries.
Woods has repeatedly stressed that his climb back to relevance would take time, time to understand his rebuilt body and refine a swing that until a few months ago was completely foreign. But his 12th-place finish two weeks ago at the Honda Classic and now Sunday’s near miss at Innisbrook will make that difficult to digest.
In an odd way, Casey’s victory may ease those wild expectations, at least for Woods. Although comparisons between the two players are few, they do share an unmistakable desire to persevere. For Casey, it was the steady drumbeat of missed opportunities as his last Tour victory at the 2009 Houston Open became a distant memory.
“I’d be lying to you if I didn't say there weren’t [doubts he could win again],” he admitted. “The last couple of years I've been very much at peace with it, having great times on the golf course and bad times on the golf course. But I'm content with the life that I built.”
Woods was far from content with his finish at the Valspar Championship - his body language made that abundantly clear - but like Casey he seems truly at peace with his plight and quietly convinced he’s finally on the right path.