Tiger Woods on a leaderboard once was the most common sight in golf, right up there with ugly pants and bad tan lines.
Then life played through. He suffered a ruptured moral compass. And his back filed for Social Security decades ahead of the rest of him.
So, now Woods is challenging at a cute little tournament that normally he wouldn’t have even flown over in his private jet. And it is news of end-of-the-world, presidential-Tweet proportions.
On Saturday at the Valspar Championship, Woods fashioned a second consecutive sub-70 round – again, what was once commonplace is something he hasn’t done in an official event since the summer of 2015. That left him at 8 under after three rounds, in a three-way tie for second and just one back of the enigma named Corey Conners.
Let’s see, it’s Woods, winner of 14 majors, chasing a Monday qualifier, and a mild-mannered Canadian, to boot. Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?
To make things a little more even-handed, he’s tied with an Olympic champion and major winner (Justin Rose) and a buddy who completely understands the even temperament required to play in the vortex created by Woods (Brandt Snedeker).
In just his 13th competitive round since his return from spinal-fusion surgery, Woods put on his most uplifting exhibition yet. He shot a 4-under 67, the lowest number thus far in his comeback tour. So lighthearted was Woods on Saturday, that just months after wondering if he ever would be competitive again, he was seen at one point skipping like a schoolboy after making a putt. He is about one birdie away from doing a Hokey-Pokey.
“I can confirm he’s back, the roars are back,” said Snedeker, who already has been paired four times with Woods this year, including Saturday. And he’ll play with him again in the penultimate pairing Sunday.
Every round here, on a course he hasn’t visited in 22 years, has been illuminating. Just as each has been progressively promising, until by the weekend he managed to completely rewrite the expectations preceding him to Augusta and highly anticipated return to the Masters.
In case you might have forgotten as Woods spent the past four-plus years not winning anything (since winning five times in 2013), he’s kind of a big deal in golf.
The impact can be quantified beyond the leaderboard.
The Golf Channel, for instance, reported that its first-round ratings were up 205 percent from a year ago at the Valspar. In the course of a week, Woods’ Vegas odds to win the Masters reportedly have dropped to just 10-to-1, placing him behind only Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson as a favorite. Yeah, go ahead and keep trying to say that Woods still doesn’t drive this bus.
And the crowds at this once rather sleepy event have been downright riotous. Usually you have to liberate France from the Nazis to get the kind of reception that greets each Woods birdie.
“The people were pumped up,” said Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie. “He’s back in action, and everyone’s rooting for him. It’s great. They get a little carried away at times and you’ve got to calm ’em down.”
“You feel like you’re back to 2012 and ’13 – back to the good ol’ days for sure,” LaCava said.
His highlights Saturday included a little bit of everything from the Tiger Woods nostalgia sampler.
Like the 21-foot birdie putt on No. 3 that got his day started. And the 22-foot birdie putt seven holes later.
Like overpowering two of the three par 5s, making it appear someone had horribly overvalued the holes on the scorecard.
And, then, there was the flash of the truly special that has been particularly absent in the past five years. After blowing his approach over the pin and into a bit of gnarly grass behind the green on No. 9, Woods’ flop shot from 30 feet away didn’t stop rolling until it was nestled in the cup. And the comeback just got a lot more real.
“It’s been a pretty clean last couple of days. Really good. Really consistent,” Woods said. He’s had but a single bogey in both his second and third rounds. “I moved myself up the board. I know it’s packed up there, but at least I got a shot.”
An obviously pumped Woods is one of nine players within four shots of Conners’ lead, and one of 16 within five of the lead.
“I’m excited. I’ve been ready to go. I’m excited to play. It’s going to be fun,” he said.
Where before it was routine, dog-bites-man stuff when Woods lurked on a leaderboard, it’s such a better story now.