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Tiger Woods didn’t win the Valspar Championship, but he proved once again that this comeback is unlike the rest

March 11, 2018

PALM HARBOR, Fla. — This was different. Tiger Woods at 42, with a fused back and exposed private life, would have to be. If you think this version is better, go right ahead. Back in the day, when Earl was in his prime and his youngest child was not yet in his, the father would tell the son, “Let the legend grow.” You have the highlight reel in your head of the many times he did.

Sunday at the Valspar Championship, normally just an ordinary Tour event, was nothing like ordinary, as Woods began the day with a chance to win and never did anything to take himself out of it. The Englishman Paul Casey, playing 70 minutes ahead of Woods, got in the house at 10 under with a sterling 65. Woods, playing in the second-to-last group and looking for his 80th PGA Tour win and his first since 2013, knew what he had to do. His play was … fine. No, it was far better than that. His play was often spectacular. It just never amounted to anything. He began the day at eight under. He turned at eight under. He dropped a 43-foot birdie bomb on 17 to go to nine under, and on his long walk to the hole broke out in the biggest smile you’ve seen from him in years.

Eighteen was his chance to let the legend grow. The 72nd hole is why Tiger Woods was in the fitness room at this middle-class resort on Friday morning hours before his early tee time, hours before day break, lifting weights, strengthening his obliques with a medicine ball. But it didn’t happen. Fine tee shot, indifferent iron, 39-footer that died a about a foot short of the hole, a slap to the face of his putter because any other slap would be socially unacceptable. He didn’t win. Casey did, and Woods was one shot back. One shot! He didn’t do what he used to do, take the reins of the tournament, put the other players on his puppet strings, hoist the trophy like it was preordained to belong to him. Nope, he didn’t do any of that. But he showed that he can win again. Maybe he’ll win this week at Bay Hill. Maybe he’ll win next month at the Masters. Maybe he’ll never win again. But he’s going to have some chances.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t play before Arnold’s passing,” Woods said. “It’s going to be good for me to get back. I’ve had some great memories there. I have won there a few times.” By which he means eight. Such an understated guy! The opposite of his father, that way.

Why do we have so much invested in this latest Tiger Woods comeback? After running over that Isleworth hydrant in November 2009, he didn’t win in 2010 or 2011, but he won three times in 2012 — the first of them at Arnold Palmer’s tournament — and five times in 2013. His secrets were out for the world to see, his marriage was over, his humiliation had to be extreme, and still he was able to win. How about that comeback?

But something happened to us over the course of Tiger’s 2014, his ’15, his ’16 and his ’17, when not only did he not win, he barely played. And when he did play, he looked lost. We could see it, plain as day. His putting woes and chip yips and crazily offline driving. The swing-theory gobbledygook he uttered, trying to just get through this press conference or that one. The litany of physical issues he faced, most particularly in his lower back. His various medical dead ends. Lindsey Vonn in, Lindsey Vonn out. Then came Memorial Day 2017, and that mug shot. Not only could we see it — tens of millions of us — we could see right through it. A Palm Beach County police report said there was not a drop of alcohol in his body, which told you one thing. The five drugs in his urine sample told you another. As part of his plea deal over his May 29 arrest, Woods, through Nov. 3, is subject to unannounced drug tests to prove to the county court that he is not abusing drugs again. You may not have processed all this detail, but you knew the big picture: for all his wealth and all his fame and all his accomplishment, the man was in pain, physical and psychic.

And then came the Honda tournament last month, where he played four days of good golf on a hard course in tough conditions and showed what he had not shown, at all, in his two Southern California starts, that he was capable of winning PGA Tour events again. With his eyes on the Masters in April, and looking to win his first major in almost 10 years, he added the Tour stop here, at a difficult and unglamorous resort track named for a snake (the Copperhead course at Innisbrook) in a massive development about 20 crow-flying miles from the Tampa airport.

Through 54 holes, Woods was at eight under par, trailing the leader, a 26-year-old Canadian named Corey Conners, by one. Woods and Brandt Snedeker were in Sunday’s penultimate twosome. You could say it felt like old times, and in ways it did. The energy around Woods was palpable and there was — cover your ears, Jack Whitaker! — a mob following Woods’s every move and exalting every time he got a putt on line. His green-to-tee walks were past walls of fandom, human beings of every shape and size and age and color, chanting at him, reaching for him, hoping with him.

But in other ways, it did not. For one thing, Tiger Woods was playing in the Valspar Championship at the Innisbrook Resort, an event he had never before deemed necessary to play. The many people at Innisbrook watching on many TVs in its many clubhouses, grillrooms and condos saw Rickie Fowler on almost every commercial break, selling us on Farmers Insurance and Quicken Loans mortgages. For years, Tiger owned the commercial breaks, with his spots for Nike and Buick and American Express. Remember? We didn’t really know him then. We just thought we did. The Woods we know now, to the degree we do, seems like a far more real person. Rooting for him is no longer rooting for General Motors. Nobody is really rooting for a fused back, although it was amazing to see Woods absolutely punish a long-iron second shot to the front part of the green on the par-5 14th, 600 yards on the card.

“I don’t pay to watch what he does off the field,” said a Woods fan in his mid-50s, Kirk Elliott, a fit, sub-80 golfer himself, wearing a red Nike shirt, in tribute to the golfer he was following. “I pay to see what he does on the course. When you’re a phenom, they’re going to try to knock you down. It’s rare for these phenoms to go through life and never have any problems. They all do, except for maybe Wayne Gretzky. But Tiger, he’s come a long ways.”

It was an insightful comment, and it’s been a long time coming. Whether we know it or not, what we’re rooting for here is not just a golfer making a comeback but, you suspect, a reconstituted person.

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. In February of 2010, now more than eight years ago, Woods delivered painful remarks at his “mea culpa” press conference in a ballroom of the clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass. He said then, “I once heard, and I believe it’s true, it’s not what you achieve in life that matters; it’s what you overcome.” That was more than eight years ago now. He’s like the rest of us, a work in progress. His work is in plain view for us, offering entertainment, escape — and inspiration.

“I believe my game is progressing,” Woods said. You might replace game with life. Right now, only Woods knows if that’s really the case. In time, we may find out, too.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at mbamberger0224@aol.com.