Sunday evening in Florida and after four days of chaos around the course of Innisbrook Resort, the last roars on the 18th green finally fade for another year. The biggest roar of them all came from Tiger.
Of the 150,000 sell-out crowd that turned up to watch the Valspar Championship – most would have travelled home in awe of the stellar performance of Tiger Woods.
The 14-time major winner – continuing his comeback after four surgeries in three years – produced a sensational display to finish in tied for second behind winner Paul Casey.
Although the Englishman was lifting his first PGA title since 2009, Woods would surely have driven back to Jupiter on Sunday feeling satisfied having played his best golf in nearly four years.
Rounds of 70-68-67-70 will raise serious optimism for the rest of the season ahead – especially coming into the final round as a contender to win his first tournament since 2013.
The final-round 70 may disappoint him as his iron play and putting seemed off-colour until the 17th when he birdied a sensational 44-foot putt. But the poise of his second and third rounds show the maestro still has the finesse, confidence and skill to compete at the highest level.
Although he came agonisingly short of clinching his 80th PGA title, his finish in Palm Harbor was his first top-five result at a PGA Tour event since finishing in a tie for second at The Barclays in New Jersey in August 2013.
What struck home about the Florida native this weekend compared to any other tournament this year were the smiles, the pep in his step, the putting and his wedge play.
There was a genuine sense that he was really enjoying being in the groove, being in a finishing group on the final day and having the mindset that he could actually go on and win.
Considering the rollercoaster journey he has been on – from comebacks to injuries to positive rounds – this is clearly his best stretch of golf since finishing second in the Northwestern Mutual Golf Challenge in December 2013.
It’s hard to fault an athlete who has been curtailed by injuries and poor form. But to return from four surgeries in 40 months and show the same enthusiasm for the sport is impressive.
Woods’ devotion to fitness and perfecting his game over the years would always come at a price. He swung the golf club with ferocity, putting added pressure on his back, but always looked so composed, even in his moments of pain.
Watching Tiger this year, he cuts a contrasting figure to the one that skipped around golf courses worldwide during his halcyon days. He’s loosened up more, high fives players, stops for a chat and looks to really enjoy the buzz of playing again. Perhaps during his bed-ridden days recovering from back surgery made him realise the fun missed when he was so focused on winning tournaments.
For whatever duration Tiger remains competing on the PGA Tour, he is the biggest individual draw in professional sport. Everyone loves him.
We have LeBron James in basketball. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in football. Roger Federer and Serena Williams in tennis.
In golf, despite the emergence of stars like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy in recent years, people still prefer to come out and see Tiger whether he wins, finishes 30th or doesn’t even make a cut. He is still the messiah and always will be.
The accolades clearly make him one of the best of all time – and although it is unlikely he will get closer to Jack Nicklaus’ haul of 18 majors – he will continue to have a significant impact on the interest of the sport and draw mega attendances at the various events he competes in.
Given the 42-year-old’s tournament rustiness, not many people have expectations of where he can finish at majors – the last time he competed at a major was 2015 when he missed the cut in three out of the four events (finished T17 at the Masters).
But if he is to contend again, he needs to improve his driving – his 49.86 driving accuracy percentage so far this year is way down on the 63.93 of 2012 – but given how early he is into his comeback, coupled with the back issues, that may need to be a later development.
First he needs to continue gaining confidence on the course, finding his touch with the clubs and returning to winning positions on a consistent basis. He’s doing all of those but it needs to be done consistently over a few months before we can argue that he is actually showing serious signs of progress.
It’s set up to be a hugely positive year for Tiger. He’ll compete at the Arnold Palmer Invitational this weekend and then step out at the Masters on April 5 where he is a four-time winner, the last of these victories coming back in 2005.
Even if Tiger doesn’t go on to win another tournament for the rest of his career he will still attract the crowds, draw the headlines, the big page spreads. He will still be that guy that won the US Open in 2000 by 15 shots.
There will be greater players to strike the ball for as long as we watch the sport, but none will leave a greater legacy on the game than Tiger.
It’s difficult to know where his comeback is going, but as a fan, his constant presence on our TV screens is a joy to watch.
Paul Casey won his first PGA Tour event since 2009 in the Valspar Championship as Tiger Woods came up just short in his own remarkable bid for an overdue victory.
Casey carded a final round of 65 on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort to set a clubhouse target of 10 under par, which American Ryder Cup star Patrick Reed looked set to match before he bogeyed the final hole.
Woods was two behind with three holes to play – Copperhead’s so-called “Snake Pit” – but holed from 40 feet for an unlikely birdie on the 17th and had a similar distance on the last to force a play-off.
But the 14-time major winner, playing just his fourth PGA Tour event since undergoing spinal fusion surgery last April, was unable to repeat the feat and had to settle for a share of second place.
“It was a very good week,” the 42-year-old told Sky Sports. “I’ve got a little bit better since the last time I played a couple of weeks ago and it was a very difficult week – tough conditions on a tough golf course, very demanding and I thought I held up really well.”
Asked how he felt being in contention for a first victory since August 2013, Woods added: “It felt very comfortable. I remember it and on top of that my game’s sharp and so it was a good day.
“Unfortunately I just didn’t hit the ball close enough to make a few putts. I missed a short one [for par] at four and should have birdied 14; those little mistakes over the course of a week will get you and it got me this week.”
Casey has won 13 times on the European Tour but his sole previous success on the PGA Tour came in the Houston Open in 2009 and he let slip a two-shot lead after 54 holes in the Tour Championship last September.
The 40-year-old began the final round five shots off the lead but carded four birdies and a bogey in a front nine of 33, before rolling in a hat-trick of birdies from the 11th.
Reed joined Casey at the top of the leaderboard with a birdie on the 14th but made a mess of the last, his long-range putt failing to get over the ridge in the green and rolling back to his feet.
“This is so much better than probably a lot of them [wins] put together,” Casey told Sky Sports. “Worked so hard for it – it’s tough to put it into words.
“There has been a lot [of pressure] and it’s got to the point where it’s gone the other way, where actually I’m playing very free golf, very relaxed and at peace with whatever happens on the golf course. I can say that because of my life away from the golf course, my wife and kids. To then get both is the icing on the cake.”
Casey has finished in the top six in the Masters in each of the last three years and added: “I’m excited, and not only for my game but the fact that Tiger’s playing great. It’s cool.
“I’m a fan of golf and to pip him is very special. He’ll be on top form when we get there [Augusta National] and I’m looking forward to it. I think I’ve got a good chance.”
Masters champion Sergio Garcia finished fourth after also carding a closing 65, with Ryder Cup team-mate Justin Rose a disappointing joint fifth. Rose birdied the opening hole and held the outright lead after Woods dropped a shot on the fourth, but bogeyed the 12th and 13th in a round of 72.
Thai teenager Phachara Khongwatmai posted a bogey-free round 65 to share a joint single-stroke lead with Italy’s Nino Bertasio at the halfway stage of the Maybank Championship in Malaysia on Friday.
The duo hold a marginal advantage over Scotland’s Marc Warren, Japan’s Yuta Ikeda and English duo Lee Westwood and Chris Paisley, who are all tied on third.
Thai sensation Phachara, 18, said he learnt a lot from the match-play style tournament.
“My partner Hideto Tanihara taught me a lot and he calmed me down because I was very nervous,” Phachara, who shot seven birdies, told reporters.
“It has been a long time since I’ve been bogey-free. I putted very well because I didn’t hit the ball close to the hole.”
Earlier, Westwood finished with a 62 after an astonishing 11 birdies at the Saujana Golf and Country Club, where he won the Malaysian Open in 1997.
“It’s nice to be in contention and to know this golf course well,” Westwood, 44 said.
Say hello to the calmest 18-year old in golf.
— Maybank Championship (@maybankchampio1) February 2, 2018
A competitive field saw a host of golfers remain only two shots off Phachara and Bertasio in tied-seventh, including last year’s runner-up David Lipsky of the United States.
Top-ranked Henrik Stenson of Sweden also made the cut after an improved performance for a 67 to lurk six shots from the joint leaders.
Perhaps the biggest name to miss the cut was China’s Li Haotong, who finished in an abysmal tied-125th.
There were high hopes that Li would stamp his mark on this tournament after his eye-catching victory at the Dubai Desert Classic last week, where he upstaged four-time Major winner Rory McIlroy.
Leading scores after the second round of the Maybank Championship Malaysia (Par 72):
133 – Phachara Khongwatmai (THA) 68-65, Nino Bertasio (ITA) 68-65
134 – Lee Westwood (ENG) 72-62, Yuta Ikeda (JPN) 70-64, Marc Warren (SCO) 68-66, Chris Paisley (ENG) 65-69
135- Stephen Gallacher (SCO) 70-65, Daisuke Kataoka (JPN) 68-67, Hideto Tanihara (JPN) 71-64, Dylan Frittelli (RSA) 69-66, David Lipsky (USA) 67-68, Maximilian Kieffer (GER) 69-66, Jorge Kampillo (ESP) 69-66
136 – Andrew Dodt (AUS) 71-65, David Horsey (ENG) 66-70, Ryan Fox (NZL) 68-68, Danthai Boonma (THA) 70-66, Robert Karlsson (SWE) 68-68, Thomas Detry (BEL) 68-68, Thomas Bjorn (DEN) 68-68, Thongchai Jaidee (THA) 69-67, Prayad Marksaeng (THA) 71-65, Soren Kjeldsen (DEN) 69-67, Lee Soo-Min (KOR) 67-69