PALM HARBOR Fla. – Just when you think Tiger Woods is out, he pulls you back in.
Like the way he did on No. 17 Sunday at the Valspar Championship, two shots off the lead and needing a birdie-birdie finish to get into a playoff with eventual winner Paul Casey.
Woods hadn’t made a birdie since his opening hole and was riding a streak of 12 consecutive pars, several of them discouraging. He was just about out of time.
Then he dropped a 44-foot birdie putt at 17 and raised his Scotty Cameron putter, a reminder of the heroics Woods used to produce on a regular basis. It was going to come down to the final hole at Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course, with Woods in the middle of it all.
“Now I’m thinking, ‘Alright, we’ve got a shot,’” caddie Joe LaCava said. “So I’m pretty jacked up.”
After teeing off on No. 18 with an iron, Woods was between clubs and 185 yards out. The back-right pin location meant 7-iron wouldn’t be enough to get to the hole. But Woods hit 7 anyway to give himself an uphill putt rather than try to hit a cut 6-iron. That left him with 39 feet for his birdie putt, one Casey said he gave Woods a 50-percent chance at holing.
Woods missed, but that’s the kind of respect he’s getting from the rest of the field after a 1-under 70 Sunday to finish T-2 with Patrick Reed. Woods shoot 9-under 275 for the week.
“I keep getting a little bit better and sharper,” said Woods, who finished solo 12th two weeks ago at the Honda Classic. “(Sunday) wasn’t quite as sharp as I would like to have had it, but I had a good shot at winning this golf tournament. Couple putts here and there, would have been a different story.”
His comeback story is already drastically different than most expected.
After making an up-and-down for par at No. 11 Sunday, Woods stopped and bent down to re-tie his shoes on the tee box at 12. An achievement for someone who underwent spinal fusion surgery last April.
Outwardly, he looks like a new man these days. Happier. More at peace with the world and his place in it. More willing to reach out to others.
A different uniformed military member held the pin off the 16th green each day at the Valspar, and each day Woods removed his hat, shook their hands and thanked them for their service. He smiled and talked frequently to Brandt Snedeker, with whom he played Saturday and Sunday.
After he tapped in for par at No. 18 to finish one shot off the lead, LaCava said something and Woods laughed and put his arm around his caddie as they walked off the green. He did interviews and signed autographs for five minutes before exiting the property, a day of rest scheduled on Monday ahead of next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando.
Woods had never played the Valspar, which made his run at victory that much more surprising. But he looks comfortable with the new swing and is heading to one of his most comfortable venues on Tour, where he’s won a record eight times.
“I’m really looking forward to next week,” Woods said. “I hadn’t played there in a couple years because of my back, and I wanted to play there a couple years ago. … I wanted to play one last time before (Arnold Palmer) moved on and unfortunately I just couldn’t play.”
Woods has proved he can play again. The next step is proving he can get back to the position he was in Sunday and close out a tournament for the 80th time in his career.
This comeback story is just getting started. Gwk