Tiger Woods calm, cool and in contention at Valspar

PALM HARBOR, FL - MARCH 09: Tiger Woods signs autographs for fans during the second round of the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort (Copperhead) on March 9, 2018 in Palm Harbor, Florida. (Photo by Ryan Young/PGA TOUR) Ryan Young/PGA Tour

Tiger Woods calm, cool and in contention at Valspar

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Tiger Woods calm, cool and in contention at Valspar

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – There’s a distinct calmness about Tiger Woods in the middle of the chaos.

He took the outright lead at the Valspar Championship just after 11:30 a.m. Friday following a birdie at No. 5, his 14th hole of the day, and smoked a 3-wood into the fairway on No. 6. The fans were going absolutely nuts because at that moment, on a picturesque, sunny morning along Florida’s West coast, Woods was finally back on top.

He strolled down the sixth fairway, hands tucked into the pockets of his light gray Nike pants, as if everything was totally normal.

This was sort of normal because Woods has led more than 100 tournaments and won 79 of them, but it was also decidedly abnormal because Woods was supposed to ease into this comeback and wasn’t even sure he’d play competitive golf again as recently as five months ago. 

“Could I have envisioned myself being here? No,” Woods said.

Woods shot 3-under 68 in Round 2 and enters the weekend two shots behind leader Corey Conners (6 under), tied for second with Paul Casey, Brandt Snedeker, Ryan Palmer and Kelly Kraft at 4 under. Justin Rose, Webb Simpson, Sean O’Hair, Jason Kokrak and Keegan Bradley are T-7 at 3 under. 

Woods and Snedeker will tee off at 1:45 p.m. ET Saturday in the penultimate pairing, with Conners and Casey to follow at 1:55 p.m. 

Conners got into the field Monday afternoon as an alternate after Kyle Stanley withdrew. He played Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course for the first time ever on Tuesday and shot 4-under 67 in Round 1. The 26-year-old from Ontario, Canada held on to the lead with a 2-under 69 in Round 2 to get to 6 under. 

“Kind of a new position for me, but it’s what I work for and I’m looking forward to a fun weekend,” Conners said. 

The Tampa Bay area is a popular winter destination for Canadian snowbirds, so Conners will have his share of supporters in the gallery Saturday. His best PGA Tour finish came earlier this year at the Farmers Insurance Open, where he finished T-29. He was runner-up at the 2014 U.S. Amateur and played in the Masters the following year, but he’s never experienced anything like the scene which awaits him Saturday afternoon in the final pairing, one group behind Woods. 

Woods has seen it all, of course, and he stayed extremely patient Friday, often backing off shots after approach to check the wind again or change clubs. The fans were relentless, packed seven to eight rows deep in spots, and playing partners Henrik Stenson and Jordan Spieth were imploding. But Woods remained calm as he paced the grounds, purpose behind every movement. 

Woods made his only bogey of the day at No. 9 and sunk his most important putt at No. 7, rolling in a 12-footer to save par and keep the momentum going with two holes to play. 

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

It wasn’t that hard to see a round like this coming, his lowest in 12 PGA Tour starts so far this year. The ballstriking was rock solid all week during his T-12 finish at the Honda Classic two weeks ago, his speed on and around the greens was consistently on point and he wasn’t sending drives into adjacent fairways anymore. 

Woods has been saying he’s getting close, faster than he expected, and a day like Friday was beginning to feel inevitable. It happened with help from caddie Joe LaCava, who Woods has relied on more than usual this week because it’s his first time playing the Valspar and he doesn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the course and the winds have been unpredictable at times. 

When he’s not speaking with anyone, Woods tends to check out his surroundings and sometimes appears to be just staring off into the distance at nothing in particular. He often does this during quiet moments, when fans are able to temper their child-like instincts and stand silently out of respect while others hit. 

He must cherish the calm because fans scream his name at ear-shattering volumes every time someone is not in the process of swinging a golf club. 

“It kind of feels like you’re playing in a major championship,” Jordan Spieth said. 

Spieth shot even-par 71 Friday but will miss the cut thanks to a 5-over 76 in Round 1. Henrik Stenson is also heading home at 6 over through 36 holes. 

Like Woods, Rory McIlroy made his Valspar debut this week but fared far worse. The Irishman shot 2-over 73 in Round 2 to miss the cut at 5 over. He returns to action next week at Bay Hill for the Arnold Palmer Invitational and will spend the weekend watching Woods from the couch. 

“He’s the Tiger of old in terms of the recoveries, and nearly breaks his (club) off a tree and all that sort of stuff,” McIlroy said. “I’d love to be here for the weekend to be in contention, but I’ll be an interested observer watching TV over the weekend to see how it unfolds.” 

Interested observers have followed Woods in droves all week, and it’s only going to get crazier Saturday afternoon. The Valspar has never seen anything like this. 

The only person on property who looks totally comfortable with it all is Woods, swinging without pain and trying to make everything normal again.

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