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Tampa Bay could be where Tiger Woods returns to greatness

By Tom Jones | Times Columnist
Published: March 2, 2018 Updated: March 2, 2018 at 05:40 PM
PALM BEACH GARDENS, FL - FEBRUARY 25: Tiger Woods lines up his putt on the fourth green during the final round of the Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa on February 25, 2018 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) 775099060

Not all that long ago, we wondered if Tiger Woods would ever even play golf again.

His back was a mess. His life was even messier.

Arguably the greatest golfer to ever live was a beat-up has-been who seemed closer to retirement than his days of winning green jackets, big trophies and oversized checks.

The lasting memory wasn't going to be a famous Tiger fist pump, but the infamous grainy dashcam video of a barefooted and wobbly Woods being pulled over late at night last May for suspicion of DUI, the result of taking several pain meds.

The shooting star that was once Tiger Woods had flamed out.

Which makes the next chapter of this story simply incredible.

Not only is Woods healthy and playing golf again, he looks good doing it. The conclusion of the comeback might be closer that we could have ever imagined, and Tampa Bay has a front-row seat to see it.

Tiger is back. And Tiger is here.

BREAKING: Tiger Woods has committed to play in the Valspar Championship, which begins Thursday at Innisbrook. @ValsparChamp @RodneyHomeTeam @TB_Times @PGATOUR @Innisbrook

— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) March 2, 2018

"I'd say he's a lot better off than I ever thought he'd be, that's for sure,'' NBC golf analyst Brandel Chamblee said.

Chamblee is not alone. I mean, who saw this coming?

If your hand is raised right now, you need to be hooked up to the nearest polygraph.

No one except Tiger saw Tiger playing competitive golf again.

"He's currently 389th in the world, but that's because he hasn't played,'' Chamblee said. "He's not playing like that at all. He's close to winning a golf tournament.''

Shoot, he flirted with victory last week in Palm Beach Gardens.

He was three-under and just four shots off the lead on the back nine last Sunday during the final round of the Honda Classic. He ended up finishing 12th at even par, eight shots behind the winner. But he was much closer to winning than his scorecard suggested. For the four rounds, he shot 70, 71, 69 and 70.

Pretty impressive and pretty surprising on a challenging course.

"Incredibly surprised, incredibly pleased,'' said NBC golf analyst David Duval, the former No. 1 player in the world. "Certainly there are hurdles to overcome, but the sharpness of his golf swing and his game look very, very good. You can see that as much as anything I think it was some competitive rust he was fighting. … So I don't think he's all the way there and all the way back. He's certainly getting awful close awful quickly.''

Put it this way: He doesn't look like a 42-year-old who has had four back surgeries and hasn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open. One of his drives last week reached 361 yards. On Sunday, he hit 14 greens in regulation. That's the kind of golf it takes to win.

Certainly, it's looks good enough to keep him in contention this weekend. And the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook might be the right track for Woods to keep improving his game as he gears up for next month's Masters.

"It's a good place to work on all parts of your game,'' Duval said. "And you don't have to drive it a ton there. You've got to deal with swirling winds, elevation changes. So I think it would be a very good thing for him to go play Valspar.''

Who knows? Maybe Woods can actually win.

The Valspar Championship won't be selling tickets through the tournament office. So here's where to get yours. @ValsparChamp @Innisbrook @PGATOUR @TB_Times @MikeSherman

— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) March 2, 2018

Certainly, the goal is no longer to make cuts and get through the weekend healthy. It's about actually having a chance to finish first. Just think of what next Sunday could be like with Tiger wearing his signature red golf shirt and his name at the top of the leader board with the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Sergio Garcia.

"Just the thought that Tiger Woods could come back,'' Chamblee said, "and challenge those players again and go head-to-head with those players in the prime of their careers, and to see if he can get back on a winning track. … Who knows, maybe pick off a major, it's pretty exciting stuff.''

And we have a front-row seat.

Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones