Keeping Score

Golf springs forward into Tiger Time

ORLANDO, Fla. – The world feels different this week. It just does.

I’m not passing judgment and saying it’s better or worse, just different. And it’s because of Tiger Woods. 

His return to near-winning form at the Valspar Championship was like an unexpected Christmas bonus. Just the reappearance of Woods would have been enough for the many who are Tiger fans but not necessarily golf fans. To return and show most of the same skills exhibited in his first 79 PGA Tour victories was astonishing. 

Really, it was one stroke of genius (among many in a week) that delivered the essence of Woods: the 44-foot must-make putt that he poured dead into the center with absolutely perfect speed at the 71st hole Sunday at Innisbrook Resort.

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© GOLFFILE/DALTON HAMM
Tiger Woods (right), with Brandt Snedeker on Sunday at Innisbrook Resort, shows flashes of his old form.

© GOLFFILE/DALTON HAMM
Tiger Woods (right), with Brandt Snedeker on Sunday at Innisbrook Resort, shows flashes of his old form.

It will change the way we view golf this year, in ways we haven’t realized yet. Woods is different now, golf is different now and so are we …

Second place no longer sucks, as Woods once famously said. This runner-up finish was almost as good as a victory for Woods, although he still burns to win for the first time since 2013. He didn’t disparage second place, though, because he’s been down so long. A victory would’ve been better, but he needed this. Second place, for once in his life, was a good outcome. It didn’t suck. But give him a few weeks …

We no longer will wonder if or when Woods might play again and whether his back will hold up or what kind of game he’ll bring. His driver clubhead speed has been clocked above 125 mph, as good as ever, and his short game looks like the most impeccable on Tour (sorry, Jordan Spieth). If Woods stays healthy (and that sound you hear is CBS, NBC and Golf Channel knocking on wood), there is no doubt Woods will win again …

The “Countdown to Jack” had been abandoned. The media long ago assumed that Woods would blow past the Nicklaus benchmark of 18 major championships. Fire hydrants, back fusions and painkillers intervened, erasing those assumptions. Most gave up hope of Woods coming back at all, and certainly didn’t believe he would win another major.

Now he’s back and looking sharp. A victory this week in the Arnold Palmer Invitational here at Bay Hill, where he has won eight times, would start the drumbeat anew. If Woods does happen to snag another major, whether it’s next month in Augusta or this summer at Shinnecock Hills, the media will raise the chase-to-18 hysteria to levels never before seen …

Golf was thriving without Tiger Woods. New stars arose, and keep arising, and the public and the media like them. Major champions Rory McIlroy, Spieth, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas have been extremely entertaining and displayed extraordinary skills. The fans like them, and they like the fans.

The difference between Woods and the rest of today’s top players, though, is like the difference between the Beatles and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, or Elvis Presley and Andy Williams. Woods made playing competitor Spieth look small Thursday and Friday at Innisbrook, not because of length off the tee and not because of Spieth’s dismal scores, but because Woods remains larger than life …

The return of Woods reminded us that Tigermania, which was what happened last week at Innisbrook, is truly a phenomenon. NBC’s third-round Valspar telecast had the highest ratings of any Saturday tournament in 12 years. Tiger moves the needle. In fact, he is the entire turntable …

A few of my colleagues dissed me eight years ago in the post-hydrant dark times when I said that Woods eventually would become a sentimental comeback story. That hardly seemed likely even a year ago. Yet here we are. Valspar champion Paul Casey said something in the winner’s circle that no one would have uttered during the Tiger Era: “I said a couple times, if I don’t win this thing, I actually want Tiger to win.”

I can guarantee that Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson never said that or ever thought it. Woods is now a sentimental favorite (in addition to being the most exciting player alive), the way Mickelson became a sentimental favorite at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black because at the time, he was still oh-for-major championships and the vocal New York gallery decided to pull for the underdog ...

Former Tour player-turned-broadcaster Notah Begay, a noted friend of Woods’, mentioned on NBC that Woods has four practice greens in his backyard, along with a superintendent to take care of them, and that he has one of the greens overseeded to simulate conditions he is facing this month in Florida, especially at Bay Hill.

Woods is 42. That’s how badly he wants to win.

So maybe this moment in Tiger Time isn’t so different after all.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle


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