PALM HARBOR, Fla. – There was a time in the not-so-distant past when golf, however reluctantly, had moved on.
For all of Tiger Woods’ on-course heroics throughout the years, it seemed he’d finally met an opponent he couldn’t beat. It’s a familiar story in sports, a legend at the top of his game is undone by his own body.
Since his last victory at the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Woods has played just 27 events on the PGA Tour - but so much has changed.
Jordan Spieth has won 10 times and three majors in that span. Justin Thomas earned his Tour card and has collected eight victories, a major and a FedExCup. Dustin Johnson moved from 23rd in the world rankings to first. Jon Rahm graduated from Arizona State and collected three wins worldwide.
You get the idea.
In the years since Tiger reigned supreme, a new generation stepped in to fill the void left by countless surgeries and assorted injuries. The game lamented the absence of true greatness, pined for the glory days even, but golf moved on.
On some level, even Woods had moved on, as evidenced by his self-assessment last fall at the Presidents Cup. “The pain's gone, but I don't know what my golfing body is going to be like, because I haven't hit a golf shot yet,” the 43-year-old allowed.
New stars emerged. Johnson, Spieth, Thomas and Rory McIlroy all won majors and took turns in what became a star-by-committee rotation. There was legitimate concern for Woods’ health and a genuine thought that, if healthy, he could return to something close to his old form. But as the months and years passed and the trips to the doctor’s office piled up it seemed less likely.
“You just don't know because you don't know the effects of injury,” explained Paul Casey. “Not only the physical side of things, the mental side effects. When I dislocated my shoulder, I didn't trust the shoulder for a long, long time, wasn't able to release a club and hit it.
“I was thinking will Tiger have that, all his back surgeries and sort of mental scar tissue, can I trust the back, do I have to worry?”
As Woods prepared for his second round at the Valspar Championship the answer to those questions had been a hopeful maybe.
He’d shown signs of life in his starts since returning from fusion surgery to his lower back last April, the highlight coming two weeks ago with his 12th-place finish at the Honda Classic, but the body of work was far from complete.
But an answer, if not the answer, came early Friday.
Although the Valspar Championship had just reached intermission, this rebuilt version of Tiger looked impressively familiar.
He birdied his third and fourth holes to move to within a stroke of the lead, added another at his 12th hole to grab a share of first place for the first time since the 2015 Wyndham Championship and took the solo lead with a 5-footer for birdie at his 14th hole.
Woods said he didn’t know where he stood on the leaderboard, but he got a sense from the record crowds that followed his every move at Innisbrook Resort. Certainly those around him sensed what was happening.
As the crowds grew, so did the anticipation that this could be the comeback everyone openly anticipated but privately doubted. Woods has defied convention his entire career. He’s won the Masters by 12, the U.S. Open by 15 and another national championship on one leg. But this was about more than rewriting record books and outplaying opponents, this was a soul-searching match against his own competitive mortality.
Tiger has always been reluctant to indulge in self-examination, and after so many injury-induced setbacks it was difficult to imagine the road back to relevance; but as he gazed out across the crowds that have descended on Innisbrook, he allowed himself a moment of retrospection.
“Could I have envisioned myself being here? No,” Woods said. “My surgeon hadn't told me I was fused. If I'm not fused, this is a totally different game. Am I going to feel what I did for the last four, five years or am I going to be like this?”
For all the doubt the golf world had when it came to Woods, it was the internal dialogue that made the last few years such a challenge. The mind was willing, but the body had become an unrelenting adversary.
“You can see the desire, even at Hazeltine [during the 2016 Ryder Cup] he was dying to get back out there to hit golf balls,” said Brandt Snedeker, who was tied with Woods at 4 under after the morning wave finished.
Desire, however, could only go so far. Since returning from surgery in December, Woods had said all the right things and his improved health was evident, but the results were mixed, at best.
That was until Friday, when Woods followed what he called a poor warm-up with his second consecutive sub-par round. It was all too familiar – the cheers, the club twirls, the walk-off birdie putts. Whatever it was that had been missing from Woods’ game was all so normal again.
“Just like the old days, one behind Tiger. Lose by four at the end of the week,” laughed Casey, who was also in the group at 4 under.
A game that had begrudgingly moved on was, for a few hours, energized again. As entertaining as the current crop of young stars can be, nothing ignites the masses like Tiger.
Woods was quick to stress restraint. With 36 holes remaining, he knows better than anyone that his 80th Tour title is far from in the bag. But regardless of what happens this weekend at Innisbrook, he’s given everyone, even himself, a reason for genuine, unquantified optimism, a reason to imagine a game that includes Tiger again.