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Tiger in the mix: Seems like old times

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PALM HARBOR, Fla. – For months, every millennial with a PGA Tour card has pined for the days when Tiger Woods’ name atop a leaderboard was akin to a national holiday.

On Sunday at the Valspar Championship, they’ll get their fill.

On Saturday, in a scene that could have been ripped from any number of mid-2000s highlight reels, Tiger did what Tiger does best, answering ever challenge and sending an unmistakable jolt across the Copperhead Course.

For players of a certain age, Day 3 had a time-capsule feel to it, with Woods' every move tracked by thousands and the 14-time major champion giving the masses plenty of reasons to shake the pine trees on his way to a third-round 67.

“You could tell some of the roars were for him, for sure,” said Steve Stricker, who joined the Tour a year before Woods. “It’s fun to see again. Everybody is excited and he brings so much attention to our game.”

Woods rolled in a 21-footer for birdie at the third hole, added another at the par-5 fifth and threatened to break the internet when he chipped in from behind the green at the ninth. That gave him a share of the lead with Brandt Snedeker and the most unlikely of opponents, Corey Conners, who has fewer rounds on Tour (64) than Tiger has Tour victories (79).

Attendance records have already been shattered this week, ratings have been through the roof and anticipation, both real and manufactured, has no boundaries.

On Friday when he moved to within two strokes of the lead, Las Vegas installed Woods as the third favorite to win this year’s Masters. At this rate officials may simply cancel the game’s most exclusive member-member at Augusta National in April and simply give Tiger his fifth green jacket.

Under the best of circumstances in recent years Woods has been little more than a curiosity who more often generated headlines for all the wrong reasons. Fans flocked to the occasional tournament to catch a glimpse, social media continued to declare him the game’s G.O.A.T. and a generation of young players familiarized themselves with his accomplishments via YouTube videos, but there were precious few reasons to cheer.

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Before this season, the last time Woods had any chance anywhere on a Sunday was at the 2015 Wyndham Championship, but on that day he succumbed to a 50-year-old Davis Love III. He managed just a single start on Tour last season before being sidelined by fusion surgery on his lower back and the closest he’d come to greatness in recent years was as an assistant captain at the 2016 Ryder Cup and ’17 Presidents Cup.

But on Saturday at a Copperhead Course that was filled to capacity, hopeful optimism gave way to bona fide fervor. If he can maintain this pace and win on Sunday, imagine how much confidence he would take to next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, which he’s won eight times?

And what would this mean for the Masters, where he would have arrived amid a wave of expectations regardless of his recent form?

“He's a huge draw and he plays good this week and the excitement going into the Masters is going to be massive because I don't know if any of us were really thinking he was a true favorite there and he might be after one more round of golf,” Adam Scott said.

Predictably, Woods took a slightly more measured approach to the hyperbole that swirled through the cool air on Saturday. This comeback has been too long in the making for Tiger to jump the shark, even if the subject is Augusta National.

“There are so many guys who played their way back up into this tournament. [Scott] played well, he got it up there. [Justin Rose] has been playing well,” reasoned Woods, who was tied for second place and a shot off the lead held by Conners. “There's a lot of guys up there, myself included. I have to go out there and really play well again.”

Yes, yes. Stay in the process. Ignore the distractions. Focus on the next shot, not the next tournament or next major. Nobody maintains his distance behind a mental firewall better than Tiger. But as the crowds grew in size and spirit on Saturday it was impossible to ignore the possibility.

Imagine the pre-Masters buzz as Woods and Phil Mickelson, who won last week’s WGC-Mexico Championship for his first victory in over four years, motor down Magnolia Lane with true momentum.

For all the 20-somethings who’ve spent their careers wondering what it would be like to play against Tiger at something approaching his best, the passing answer could be heard, and felt, with every cheer.

“I was walking down the sixth and looked over to the fourth green. I said to my caddie, ‘Have you ever seen those crowds?’ eight deep back there,” Rose said. “It was a view that certainly wouldn't have been the same had he not been playing. He's on the leaderboard and challenging for the lead. Now that makes it really exciting.”

Now it all seems so real.

When Woods returned to the competitive fray in December at the Hero World Challenge, which could best be described as a rehab start, he spoke of his dramatically improved health and a genuine desire to be back on Tour.

Even as he made his way through the West Coast swing with mixed results, he remained optimistic; and when he moved to within a field goal of the lead on Sunday at the Honda Classic the buzz was palpable.

But this week along the Gulf Coast of Florida he’s irrevocably turned back the clock. All of the millennials who wanted to know what it was like when a red shirt on a Sunday was more than just a fashion statement are about to find out.