Each breath getting heavier, hearts pounding, wiping away the sweat whilst starting down the eighteenth flagstick and that’s only the fans.
Tiger Woods marching down the final fairway in Florida, at the Valspar Championship, possessed by his new found form is a sight many thought was implausible.
Flashback one year ago and the 14-time major champion was ranked 674th in the world, fast forward to a near playoff with Paul Casey and he’s broken the world’s top two hundred.
It’s been 324 days since ‘Big Cat’ had major back surgery and this week captured the essence of his comeback. He’s grown into a new swing, entertained us with his short-game, dazzled us with his 129mph club-head speed and captivated the golfing world once again. Tiger Woods is unequivocally back.
Seeing the Sunday red in all its glory has been a longtime coming over a period plagued with surgeries and a 2015 season casting huge doubt if the GOAT would ever show glimpses of his old self.
From the countless fluffed chips and finishing 26 shots behind Jordan Spieth at the Hero World Challenge to his career-worst 82 in Phoenix, withdrawing from the Farmers Insurance Open, imploding on Saturday at Memorial to set a new career-worst 85 and an opening round 80 at Chambers Bay tarnished by a duffed three-wood. Those dark times seem far, far away.
Yes, there’s been the constant teasing on social media, glutes out in full glory, of Tiger smashing driver but only to be a short-lived success. A final-round pairing with Rory McIlroy and a T17 at Augusta three years ago, a near top-ten at the Wyndham the same year and briefly leading in the Bahamas on a Friday afternoon.
But this comeback felt like a new dawn, even the voice in the back of your head told you something was different, either the last hurrah or ‘Big Cat’ was back in business. A strong showing on Sunday at Torrey signalled it could be the latter and followed up by a fearless performance at PGA National where he ranked second for driving-distance, proved the tides were turning.
Then comes Tampa and the hungry Florida crowds who sensed blood was to be spilt and whatever this week resembled it sure was the sexiest advertisement for back fusion-surgery, in history.
Tiger turned up. He broke par every day, a feat he last hadn’t managed since Riviera in 2013. When the sunset on Saturday evening he was one-shot behind leader Corey Conners, the 70th time he had been within one shot of the lead after 54 holes on the PGA Tour. Woods had gone on to win 62 of the previous 69 instances, boasting a win percentage of 89.9% One heck of a stat.
Throughout the week we were treated to a vintage display. A delicious short game, crisply struck iron play, low-stinger 2-irons, crunching drives and that sweet putter stroke.
On Sunday, he propelled the Valspar Championship into must-watch television and briefly grabbed a share of the lead on the first hole with a birdie.
The crowds were out, and ten people deep, to witness what could be win number 80 but they were diverted off script. His next 15 holes didn’t match the build-up we were promised, 14 pars and a bogey, with a putter totally foreign to the play he proved he was still capable of:
“I was close. I had a chance today. Unfortunately, I just didn’t quite feel as sharp as I needed to with my irons, played a little conservative because of it.”
But, this is Tiger woods shocking the world on a Sunday is what he does best even if you have to wait until the 17th hole.
Crouched over a 43-foot birdie putt, starting it up and down, you never doubted he could still produce that spark and dropping that putt to reach 9-under ignited the whole golfing world.
Cracking a wide smile it was a shock to Tiger and thousands at Innisbrook but now he was one back with one to play and a playoff with Paul Casey in sight.
I had a good shot at winning this golf tournament.
Eighteen was his turn to stand alone at the top once again. A prowling Tiger on the 72nd hole is something for years his competition feared, the feeling that a tournament would only be won or lost by one man and only he kindled the power to decide. Even though Paul Casey was in the clubhouse with a superb final-round 65 he was powerless at the hands of a man who owns legend status.
It wasn’t to be. A striking-stinger tee shot, average iron, followed by a birdie putt which lost momentum a foot short of the hole, even though the sporting world urged it on:
“I felt very comfortable. As I told you guys yesterday, I’ve been here before a few times. So I felt very comfortable. My game was quite solid this entire week. As a whole, I felt very good about what I did this week.”
“Couple putts here and there it would have been a different story.”
Tiger Woods didn’t win. Paul Casey had waited nine years for his second PGA Tour victory, only needing 21 putts on Sunday to do so, that time had finally come. But whatever your depiction of Tiger Woods was, he had a putt on the 72nd hole for a chance to win again.
A nod of the head from NBC, who were broadcasting the event, reported that as well as their third-round figures soaring up 181% it was their highest-rated Saturday golf broadcast for a dozen years.
The ‘Tiger effect’. A subsequent side-effect of which is the realisation that he isn’t completely back, only a win will justify that, but it’s the awakening inside each golf fan that he can contend again.
A more meaningful win at the home of ‘The King’, with the Arnold Palmer Invitational this week, or another fitting for an illustrious green jacket could pave the way for the ultimate romantic announcement that ‘Big Cat’ is back.
While Tiger’s around the noise level will be cranked all the way up to max, each tournament will have that extra zest and every time he has a chance to win you’ll be glued to the screen.
On his return to Bay Hill, he said: “I’m very excited. It’s a golf course I like. It’s going to be good for me to get back. I’ve had some great memories there.
“I’ve played well there throughout the years and just haven’t been back in a couple years.
“Nice to get back.”
Welcome back, Tiger.