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PALM HARBOR, Fla. — You can practice all you want in solitude, beat thousands of balls into the dying sunset, chip and putt for hours in shorts and flip-flops in your back yard. You can play casual rounds and hundred-dollar Nassaus with your buddies. You can even enter tournaments when you’re finally ready, and play lousy in some, and well in others, leaving behind an incomplete picture of where your game stands.

But nothing can simulate the singular energy and pressure of being in the hunt late on a Sunday afternoon in March, with major season breathing down your neck, when you haven’t felt it in forever and a day.

As Tiger Woods headed away from the Gulf of Mexico early Sunday evening, pointed east, that is what he left with: At age 42, he can clearly still play. After five years in the wilderness, he can still contend. And he is dead-certain, but for the whims and randomness of a few blades of grass across the expanse of Innisbrook Golf Resort, he can still win.

That he failed to do so Sunday, falling a stroke shy in the final round of the Valspar Championship — which England’s Paul Casey won with a 6-under 65 Sunday, and a 72-hole total of 10-under 274 — was ultimately less important than the fact that, by all appearances and evidence, he still can. Five years since the last of his 79 wins, and 10 since the last of his 14 majors, it is no longer impossible to imagine those numbers climbing in the future.

“I felt very comfortable” being in contention down the stretch, Woods said following his first top-five finish on the PGA Tour since August 2013. “I had a good shot at winning this golf tournament. A couple of putts (falling) here or there, and it would have been a different story.”

With the first round of the Masters just 25 days away, the notion of Woods being fully and indisputably back as a major-championship force — improbable as it would have seemed a few years or even a few months ago, as he was recovering from his fourth back surgery — feels like a transformative moment for a sport he dominated and lifted to unprecedented heights in the two decades before this one.

Betrayed all day by iron-play that was just slightly less than sharp, and a putter that constantly scared the cup but could never split it, Woods nonetheless hung around near the top of the leader board all day, and finally drained a 44-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole to give himself a chance on the tournament’s final hole.

Casey, 40, was already in the clubhouse at 10 under, and Patrick Reed, playing in the group just ahead of Woods, could have forced a playoff with a closing par, but bogeyed instead to fall a shot back.

Woods, meanwhile, took the conservative route off the 18th tee, hitting a 2-iron down the middle, then a 7-iron to the front of the green. As a massive gallery — energized by Woods’ mere presence in a tournament he had never played, then whipped to the point of frenzy by his late Sunday charge — pressed in around the green, Woods studied his long birdie putt from all angles, took his putter back, and unforgivably left it nearly 3 feet short.

“The one thing you can’t do,” Woods said with visible regret, “is leave it short.”

Just after their rounds, Woods crossed paths with Casey outside the scorer’s tent and congratulated the latter on his first win on the PGA Tour since 2009 and his first anywhere since 2014.

“It’s the only time he’s congratulated me,” Casey said. “Usually it’s the other way around.”

The low rumble felt across the southeastern United States this weekend was the great, ancient machinery of the Tiger-Industrial Complex, which once propelled the entire sport forward until it was put in storage a few years ago, groaning back to life. Its tremors could be felt clear across Florida, and no doubt were detectable all the way to the eastern part of Georgia, round about Augusta.

It manifested itself in the flood of media requests for the PGA Tour’s remaining pre-Masters schedule — he will play the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando beginning Thursday — and the breathless chatter of Golf Twitter, which barely existed the last time Woods was relevant. It was there in the swell of fans lining the fairways of Innisbrook this weekend — aiming smartphone cameras and a constant stream of well-wishes in his direction — and in the determined carving out of four-hour blocks of couch time across the nation on Sunday afternoon.

Saturday’s telecast on NBC drew the highest third-round ratings of any tournament on a broadcast network in 12 years, with a year-to-year increase of 171 percent over the same round of the same tournament in 2017. And you can be sure Sunday, with Woods in the hunt, did just as well as better.

“I want him to play brilliant golf,” Casey, the 2006 European Tour player of the year, said of Woods earlier this week. “I want him to win again — because I want these kids to see what we dealt with for a long, long time.”

When Golf Channel analyst David Duval, a snakebit contemporary of Woods in the 1990s and early 2000s, heard about young players gushing that they wish they could have played against Woods in his prime, he offered, “The hell you do.”

For the past few years, you could just about convince yourself that golf was doing just fine without Woods as a factor. You could tell yourself that Phil Mickelson, a winner last week in Mexico City at the age of 47, could deliver enough nostalgia to make up for Woods’s absence, that Rory McElroy possesses enough of the swashbuckling charisma, that Jordan Spieth has enough steely-nerved edge and Dustin Johnson enough breathtaking game — and that all of them put together, not to mention Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas and Jason Day, were enough to carry the sport forward.

And then came Woods on a Sunday in March, the Masters just a flip of the calendar away, and you were reminded of what had been lost these past few years. You were reminded that golf is simply richer and better with him in it.

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