PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Over four days, Tiger Woods blew into a new city, shattered attendance records, boosted TV ratings, ignited social media and surged into contention – serious contention – for the first time in ages, teeing it up in Sunday’s penultimate pairing.
Afterward, he stood in front of a pack of reporters and sounded pleased that he’d given himself an opportunity, sure, but disappointed that he’d come up short.
“I gave myself a chance,” he said, “and I had all the opportunity in the world today to do it. I didn’t get it done.”
That exact scenario unfolded Aug. 23, 2015 – 932 days ago – at the Wyndham Championship, when Woods last gave himself a realistic chance to win for the 80th time on the PGA Tour. The circumstances surrounding Sunday’s final round here at the Valspar Championship were almost identical, but with one key difference.
“He’s a completely different person,” said Notah Begay III, a longtime Woods confidant. “He’s gone through public humiliation. He’s gone through personal challenges. He’s gone through physical injury. He’s gone through technical problems in all parts of his game.
“He’s risen above it all, and the end result is a guy who is out here really appreciative of his ability to go out and play the type of golf that he’s capable of.”
And that type of golf, Woods proved yet again Sunday, will be good enough to win tournaments.
He wasn’t as sharp with his irons in the final round, and he struggled with the speed of the greens while taking 32 putts, and yet he arrived on Innisbrook’s 18th tee needing a birdie to force a playoff with Paul Casey.
Woods had just canned a 44-foot birdie on 17, offering a sarcastic smirk when the putt found the bottom of the cup, and then he tried to settle himself on the final tee, taking a deep breath and wiping his palms.
“All you want is a shot coming up 18,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “We knew what we had to do.”
Woods blistered a 258-yard 2-iron off the tee, then strode purposefully up the last, the adrenaline flowing, fans young and old lining the fairway and hollering, “Let’s go Tiger!”, trying to will the game’s most popular figure to a victory that seemed improbable even five months ago. His 35-footer to match Casey came up two feet shy.
Woods should win again, and maybe soon, but he settled for a tie for second, his best finish since August 2013, when his back betrayed him for the first time in public. It was at that Barclays event that, in the midst of a Player of the Year season, he fell to his knees after playing a shot in the final round. Later, he blamed his sore neck and back on a soft hotel bed, but less than a year later he went under the knife for his first of four back surgeries.
Woods made only 17 starts over the next two seasons before summoning that out-of-nowhere performance at the Wyndham, where he shared the 36-hole lead and sat just two shots back heading into the final round. He wound up in a tie for 10th, but it was a fluke – he didn’t play another Tour event for 17 months.
The player four starts into this latest comeback bears little resemblance to that aging warrior.
Start with his speed. In 2015, his clubhead speed was 118 mph. Here on Saturday, he uncorked a 129-mph rocket – the fastest recorded on Tour this season.
And then check out his short game. In 2015, it was in utter disarray, a collection of thinned and flubbed chips and pitches that Woods chalked up to conflicting “release patterns” but in reality looked an awful lot like the yips. Only three years later it is apparent that Woods’ body was broken, and that it was uncomfortable for him to assume that setup position. At the Valspar, Woods played a series of deft pitch shots, somehow only holing out once and finishing the week fifth in strokes gained-around the green.
And then, well, just look at him: “I think he’s for real healthy this time,” LaCava said. For how long, no one knows, but in 2015 Woods was trying to scale back his schedule to preserve his body. Now, he’s trying to redline it, adding new and intriguing events during this run-up to the Masters.
What hasn’t changed is Woods’ post-round assessment, both then at the Wyndham and here at the Valspar.
“I felt very comfortable,” he said Sunday.
And: “I was close.”
And: “I had a chance today.”
That Woods contended at the Wyndham was a testament to his otherworldly talent and his grit and his course-management skills.
This is something different entirely. In just 14 rounds Woods has checked every box in his comeback: Staying upright for two rounds. Battling for a score. Making the cut. Playing consecutive weeks. Moving into the fringes of contention. Hovering around the lead.
Then on Sunday, he assumed a position that used to be so familiar: Chasing down the leader.
“The trend is going the right way,” LaCava said.
And unlike three years ago, it’s no aberration.