‘Just enjoy the music’ in Woods’ impressive comeback

  • ‘Just enjoy the music’ in Woods’ impressive comeback

    It’s tempting to forget how far Tiger has come in just a matter of weeks

  • HIGHLIGHTS

    Tiger Woods drains a monster birdie putt on No. 17 at Valspar

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Buses were brought in from Miami and Orlando. Some 6,000 parking spaces were procured, and 160 portable toilets were added to the grounds. Extra server space was acquired to ensure the website could handle the increased traffic and the media center was doubled in size.

These measures were all part of the 50-point checklist the Valspar Championship put into action after Tiger Woods committed to the tournament March 2.

“We want everyone to be able to see him,” said tournament director Tracy West. And plenty did. She estimated that an additional 40,000 spectators came to Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course last week. Television ratings spiked, as well.

West’s team was preparing for the unprecedented. This was Woods’ debut at the Valspar Championship. Now, after his successful week on the Copperhead Course, it looks like the new normal. At least for as long as he stays healthy.

Of course, that’s a big ‘if’ for a man who’s had four back surgeries, but the recoils and club twirls we saw last week seemed to signify that he is. “He’s, I think, for real healthier this time because of the different surgery. I can tell by the way he’s swinging and carrying on off the golf course,” said his caddie, Joe LaCava. “He seems healthier. That’s the big difference.”

Woods’ rebuilt back has proven strong enough to support his rebuilt swing. The talent never went away. The long birdie putt he holed on 17 heralded a return to the days when we could expect the unexpected from Woods.

No, he didn’t win the Valspar Championship. In the final round, mediocre iron play and poor pace on his putts kept him out of the winner’s circle. Yes, Old Tiger would have probably stormed out of that second-to-last group with a 67. But, if we’re criticizing Woods for falling short Sunday, we’re likely falling into the same trap that we did during his best years.

“We all took him for granted,” said his old Stanford teammate, Notah Begay.

Even Woods’ competitors were cheering his return to contention. His absence provided the space for young stars like Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas to develop, but also showed that no one is capable of creating the environment that Woods does.

“(We) got to see some amazing stuff and hear the roars,” said Valspar champion Paul Casey.

The familiarity of seeing Woods in Sunday red makes it easy to forget that this was just the 14th round of hislatest comeback. He spent most of the past two years out of the public spotlight, living “minute to minute” as he struggled with his back injuries. “You have no idea how hard it was,” he said.

When he returned in January, he was just happy to be there. He simply wanted to play a steady schedule. A few weeks later, Woods looks like one of the best players on TOUR. He should be among the favorites for this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. He first won at Bay Hill in 1991, claiming the first of his six consecutive USGA amateur titles. He shared a victorious handshake with Palmer eight times. He’s won four of his last five starts at Bay Hill.

When asked what he wanted to improve before Thursday’s opening round, he didn’t talk about his golf game. “Maybe get a few good lifts in,” he said. He wasn’t going to touch a club the day after the Valspar.

Woods said he’s working as his own coach this season because no one knows what it’s like to swing 120 mph with a fused back. He’s right. He’s been influenced by all his previous teachers, but, at this point, does anyone need to teach him how to play? He seems to be tapping into his innate talent, and his body seems healthy enough to make the move his mind envisions. He’ll never be able to swing the way he did in 2000, but he’s back to hitting sky-high long-iron shots, shaping his short-irons and displaying deft touch around the greens.

“You never lose your instinct. You lose your ability,” Begay said. “I don’t think that Nolan Ryan ever forgot how to pitch. Athletes don’t forget. Their bodies just expire.”

Woods’ due date will come, as it will for all of us, but for now he’s keeping at bay the inexorable marching of time.

He ranks second on TOUR in clubhead speed, the only 40-something in the top 30. He’s also inside the top 30 in three of the four Strokes Gained statistics: Approach-the-Green (19th), Around-the-Green (21st) and Putting (23rd). At the Valspar, he ranked inside the top 20 in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, Approach-the-Green and Around-the-Green.

“I think that I’ve gotten a little bit better than I was a couple weeks ago at Honda, keep getting a little bit better and sharper,” he said.

He’s ranked highly in the Strokes Gained stats despite his poor play at Riviera, where he shot 72-76 to finish 111th. His struggles were so deep in that second start that it tempered some of the excitement following an impressive T12 at The Honda Classic.

When he arrived at Innisbrook, we still didn’t know if this comeback would be full of fits and starts, if every step forward would be followed by two steps back. Nearly winning on a course that he hadn’t seen in more than two decades confirmed that Woods is ready to win, possibly sooner than later.

He can remember a putt from 20 years ago, Begay said, but Woods couldn’t rely on course experience or good memories to carry him through this week. He last saw Innisbrook in 1996, in a co-ed exhibition event. The course has been renovated since then. Instead, he simply had to execute to contend at the Valspar.

He displayed well-controlled iron play in the winds that swirled during the first three rounds, as well as a deft short game. He needed to hole just two putts outside 15 feet to earn a spot in Sunday’s second-to-last group.

He made seven bogeys last week and just one apiece in each of the final three rounds. Only four players made fewer.

He still struggles with his driver, but that’s been the case throughout the latter half of his career. He ranks 104th in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee and 106th in Driving Distance (all drives) because of his reliance on long-irons and 3-woods off the tee. PGA National and the Copperhead Course are two layouts where control trumps distance off the tee, so he could navigate them with something less than driver. In the third round at Innisbrook, he hit long-iron off the tee on seven of the par-4s and par-5s. He used 3-wood and driver three times apiece.

He’ll eventually need to hit more drivers. But, after just 14 rounds, it’s appropriate to marvel at the lengths he’s come instead of looking at the heights he once scaled. It’s not long ago that he wondered if he’d ever play golf again.

“At this particular moment, don’t question the genius,” Begay said. “Just enjoy the music.”

  • Sean Martin