Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 11, 2018

Tigermania Returns, With A Different Result

By the thousands golf fans lined the fairways at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead course this weekend, six and eight deep at times. They thronged around the greens, so densely packed by Sunday afternoon that while many would be able to say they were there, they could not honestly claim to have seen the crucial putts over the closing holes of the Valspar Championship. As large as the crowds were in Palm Harbor, Florida, many times the number of fans watching in person were at home following NBC’s coverage of this week’s PGA Tour’s stop. The unusually high level of interest in a tournament that is not one of the premier events on golf’s annual calendar had everything to do with the 42-year old playing in the final round’s next-to-last twosome. Dressed in his familiar Sunday garb of red shirt and black pants, Tiger Woods was not just playing again, but contending.

It’s been more than four and one-half years since Woods last lifted a trophy at the end of the PGA Tour event. In the long interval since he won the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational by seven shots, Woods has undergone four surgical procedures on his back. He played in just 18 total events in 2014 and 2015, none in 2016, and just one last year. When his game was on public display, it was often painful for fans to watch. Off the tee his shots could go in any direction and seemed to wind up in the deep rough more often than in the middle of the fairway. Around the green his play was the stuff of bad comedy, with muffed pitches and skulled chips that any weekend hacker would find familiar.

So it was that when Woods pronounced himself ready for a return to action by teeing it up at the Farmers Insurance Open in January, fans didn’t know what to expect. For the golfer who leant his name to an entire era, it was the first round in an official PGA Tour event in a year. While never a factor in the tournament, Woods did play all four rounds in San Diego. But three weeks later at the Genesis Open in Los Angeles, he was 1-over in the first round and 5-over in the second, missing the cut by a wide margin.

Just one week later came the Honda Classic, as the Tour moved to the east coast. With a couple of birdies early in the first round, Woods’s name topped the leader board for the first time in what felt like eons, and the response by fans was predictable. Social media came alive with a level of excitement more appropriate for him winning another major than merely sharing the lead early on a tournament’s first day. By the time the sun went down Woods had returned a solid score of even par 70 on the difficult layout at PGA National, but he was four off the lead. He got no closer over the remainder of the tournament, finishing in a tie for 12th, eight shots adrift of winner Justin Thomas.

The Tour crossed the state from Palm Beach Gardens to the Tampa area for the Valspar, and when Woods opened with a 1-under par 70 to sit three off the number set by unlikely first round leader Corey Connors, a new wave of fan fever began to build. This time Woods followed his opening with steadily improving scores, shooting 68 on Friday and 67 on Saturday. It marked the first time in his brief return that he had posted three consecutive sub-par rounds. It also left him at 8-under for the tournament, in a three-way tie for second with Justin Rose and Brandt Snedeker, one shot off the lead still held by the unknown Connors.

When Woods began the final round with a 1st hole birdie to tie Connors, it seemed for a moment that the hopes of so many fans might be realized; that this might be the day when Woods ended his long absence from the winner’s circle. But the rabid enthusiasm spreading like wildfire among fans both on the scene and at home ignored the reality that the Copperhead’s opening hole is a reachable par-5 that played as the easiest hole on the course. The fact that Connors bogeyed it a few minutes later was certainly a sign that midnight was about to strike on his Cinderella tournament, but a birdie on the hole was in truth to be expected.

And in fairness to Woods, what came next was also reasonable to expect, at least by those who didn’t let both their excitement and imagination take over. Woods left his approach shots on the next two holes fifty feet short and thirty feet right of the pins. On the par-3 4th his tee shot settled in the front fringe, and the subsequent chip raced five feet past the cup. Woods was unable to hole the putt coming back, with the bogey taking him back to even par on the day. There then followed twelve consecutive pars. Woods played steadily and well, but not spectacularly. Faced with the pressure of putting while in contention on a Sunday afternoon for the first time in years, Woods lost nearly a stroke to the field in the Tour’s strokes gained – putting statistic. That’s consistent with his overall performance on the greens so far this year, as he continues to work off many layers of rust. He ranks in the top five overall in putts per round for the first two rounds of an event, and a very respectable 13th during third rounds. But he tumbles all the way to 174th in that stat during the final round of an event.

That didn’t prevent Woods from offering one vintage moment late in the day. Trailing Paul Casey, who had finished off a sparkling 65 more than an hour earlier by two shots as he stood on the 17th green, Woods surveyed a downhill birdie putt of nearly 44 feet. He set his Ping blade behind the ball and sent it on its way. The ball trundled down the slope, curling from right to left at the end before dropping into the cup as the gallery roared. But there was no similar magic at the last, when an uphill birdie try from 30 feet curled away and died short of the hole. Englishman Casey, a consistent star on the European Tour who had remarkably posted just one victory in this country, and that all the way back in 2009, finally had his second PGA Tour win.

Having Tiger Woods back in action is obviously great for golf, for he attracts fans like no other player. He will certainly win again, perhaps as soon as this coming week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. To say the Bay Hill layout suits his eye is an understatement, as Woods has won the API eight times. And while the odds seem to favor Jack Nicklaus retaining the record for most majors with 18, one should not assume that Woods’s 14th, now a decade ago, will be his last. But he is also 42, and those putting stats don’t lie.  Discerning fans also know that the PGA Tour is about much more than Tiger Woods. Numerous young stars have come to the fore during his long absence, many of whom idolized Woods while growing up. While they surely welcome the return of their old hero, Justin and Dustin, Jordan and Jason, Rory and the rest have all proven their mettle. Unlike the pros of a generation ago when Tigermania was new, they are unlikely to flinch when galleries let loose with those familiar Tiger roars.

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Responses

  1. Tiger is on a hero’s journey at this point in time, Mike. I hope that he goes out on top when the time comes.
    Ω

    • One can always hope Allan. Though we both know far too many stories of athletes in various sports who couldn’t bring themselves to walk away.

      Thanks,
      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com

      • In the words of George Costanza, “Always go out on a high note!”
        Ω

  2. A fine read, as always.

    Don

    • Thanks Don. You probably saw that based on his first round at Bay Hill this week, Las Vegas had to shorten his odds for the Masters so much that Woods is now the favorite to win at Augusta. Which just proves yet again that people bet with their hearts rather than their heads.

      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com

  3. […] The memory of this event came to me when I read Mike Cornelius’s recent post about Tiger Woods return to the […]


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