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.