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Woods making the difficult look easy

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PALM HARBOR, Fla. – The biggest sign of progress in Tiger Woods’ latest comeback effort may have been the normalcy of it all.

Starting his second round at the Valspar Championship when the air was crisp and the breeze barely above a flutter, Woods didn’t have a single standout shot that turned the tide. There wasn’t a near-ace like he had in his opening round, nor a cringe-worthy moment like his arm ricocheting off a neighboring tree.

This was simply a man in control of his game, going about his business. As playing partners Jordan Spieth and Henrik Stenson – two of the highest-ranked players in a record-setting field this week at Innisbrook Resort – flailed in frustration, Woods clinically dissected the Copperhead Course like he has so many tracks before.

Tee shots were properly positioned. Misses were manageable. Iron distances were dialed in. The short game, reliable as ever, stepped in when called upon.

It was a display of control and finesse, not brawn. And what made it all the more enthralling was just how easy he made it look.

“I felt like I was able to grind today out,” Woods said after a 3-under 68 gave him a brief share of the lead. “Today was a tough day, especially early on with it being so cold. I thought I was very patient in the way I hit the golf ball today, placed it away from a lot of the flags, and then when I had a few chances I took a run at them. I was able to convert.”

It’s the kind of tactical approach Woods flexed in his prime: minimize the errors, capitalize on the opportunities. Let the other players press and make mistakes. Wash, rinse, repeat.

“The margin is very small, so I enjoy that aspect where par is a reward,” Woods said. “I don’t feel like I’m behind if I make four pars in a row. You make a couple birdies here, you shoot up the board. I like that kind of golf. I like that kind of test.”

But until a few weeks ago, the general consensus was that that player now lived only on YouTube. When Woods missed the cut at the Genesis Open, the conversation was about whether his body could endure the physical toll of flying across the country and suiting up for another tournament at the Honda Classic the next week.

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Woods speaks often about incremental improvements, and he made a big step with his 12th-place performance at PGA National. That was followed by his unexpected decision to add this event to his schedule, and suddenly after landing on the Valspar leaderboard it’s hard to even fathom some of the challenges and choices he was facing just a few short weeks ago.

“I felt like I was playing well at Honda, just a matter of cleaning up a few holes and a few shots here and there,” Woods said. “What I was doing, it worked. Little changes I made from L.A. worked and, you know, I’m especially feeling more comfortable this week than I was at the Honda with the changes I made.”

Were it not for a missed 5-footer on his final hole of the day, Woods would have turned in a blemish-free scorecard and entered the weekend riding a streak of 23 holes without a bogey. This despite swirling winds and firm conditions that sent Spieth, among others, heading for the exits after missing the cut.

Spieth’s last grouping with Woods in an official PGA Tour event came at the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, where Woods struggled mightily with his chipping and stumbled to a second-round 82. Having seen Woods at one of his low points, he had an appreciation for the standout performance he witnessed over the first two days.

“The roars are a little louder, and there’s certainly an energy about the gallery that you don’t have anywhere else,” Spieth said. “There certainly is a difference in the feelings and the sounds within the group.”

Whether Woods can sustain his newfound momentum remains to be seen. Inevitably, there will be unexpected challenges and compounded errors that will threaten to derail what is already a performance that exceeds expectations.

But projecting beyond this week, with the Masters looming on the horizon, the most encouraging aspect of Woods’ effort outside Tampa was just how ordinary he made it look.

As he continues to improve, the barometer for what constitutes a progress inevitably shifts. But if he’s able to carefully craft a game plan to take down an unfamiliar course – and if his fused back will allow him to execute that plan successfully, point by point – the rest of the Tour might soon be re-acquainted with a man they thought was long gone.

“I’m up there. I don’t think this will be leading, but at least I’m there with a chance going into the weekend,” Woods said. “Today was a good day.”