Tiger Woods on target off tee during Valspar pro-am

Tiger Woods Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Tiger Woods on target off tee during Valspar pro-am

PGA Tour

Tiger Woods on target off tee during Valspar pro-am

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – The game Tiger Woods brought to Wednesday’s Valspar Championship Pro-am didn’t look much like the one he used to finish T-12 at the Honda Classic two weeks ago.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course is a tough test, one which Tiger hasn’t seen since he last played in competition here at the 1996 JCPenney Classic. It demands accuracy off the tee and rewards strong iron play, providing less of an advantage to the bombers than a course like PGA National.

Tiger wasn’t nearly as good with his irons Wednesday as he was all week at the Honda, where he ranked first in proximity to the hole on approach shots. But he was much more accurate off the tee and hit a variety of different shots, carding an even-par 71 with two birdies and two bogeys.

“It does fit my eye well,” Woods said of Copperhead. “It’s very tricky off the tee and fun that I have been able to shape it. I got to hit highs and lows, draws and cuts. It’s a test.”

Tiger hit 11 of 13 fairways in regulation Wednesday and only missed badly one time. He hooked a driver so far left at the par-4 10th that he hit a second tee ball and, while walking in the fairway, shouted to fans surrounding his first ball that they could pick it up and keep it.

Off the tee, Woods hit six drivers, two 3-woods and five long irons. He had the driver in hand both times he missed the fairway, but 4 of 6 fairways with driver is a great sign considering how many issues he had with the big stick on the West Coast and, at times, at the Honda.

Another difference was his iron play, one which can probably be attributed in part to his unfamiliarity with the course. Woods was short of the green six times, four times on approach shots from the fairway and on two of the five par 3s.

It could also have to do with the fact that Tiger has been working on a different ball flight lately after hitting a lot of low iron shots in blustery conditions at the Honda.

“Lot of shots I hit at Honda were all knockdowns,” Woods said. “I had to focus on getting that ball up in the air again, reset swing and start hitting it high. Once I’m hitting it high I can usually take it down low. Usually the opposite, it becomes difficult to do.”

Woods hit a mere 6 of 18 greens in regulation but looked extremely comfortable chipping from the greenside rough and bunkers. The not-so-distant idea that wedge play could be his downfall seems like ancient history.

So, while Woods was able to make up for his shortcomings with the mid-irons, he’ll need to get the yardages dialed in if he hopes to compete this week. Adam Hadwin, the 2017 Valspar winner, was T-2 in greens in regulation last year. Runner-up Patrick Cantlay was first and Dominic Bozzelli, who finished tied for third, ranked T-2 in greens in regulation.

Woods did (presumably) lead the field in posed photos taken Wednesday, stopping with a variety of tournament volunteers and fans. He even buddied up for a snapshot with a burger chef after grabbing a slider at a food station inside the ropes off the 12th tee.

He also ended things on a high note, sticking his best iron shot of the day at No. 18 for an easy birdie.

There aren’t many easy birdies to be had around here and, unlike most Tour stops, Woods can’t rely on his superior experience and course knowledge. He’ll have that next week at Bay Hill, where he’s won eight times.

Here he’ll have to hit the shots and trust his swing and learn on the fly, a sort of “prove it” week during his fourth tournament of the season.

If Woods makes the cut and plays well, it will prove what we saw at the Honda was very real.

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