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Tiger Woods is looking like … Tiger Woods

By Tom Jones
Fans vie for autographs as Tiger Woods moves into Autograph Alley after playing the Copperhead Course on Thursday (3/8/18) during the first round of the Valspar Championship at the Innisbrook Golf and Spa Resort in Palm Harbor. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

PALM HARBOR — Can Tiger Woods be Tiger Woods again?
Really, that's all we want to know, right? Can he win again? Can he dominate again? Can he add more trophies to his mantle and more green jackets to his wardrobe?

Can the guy who used to be the best golfer on the planet once again become the best golfer on the planet?

That's partly what this week is about. That's why the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook is such a big deal. This could be the sight of Tiger's return to greatness. Or at least his return to the top of the leaderboard.

Of course, we might be asking way too much. Tiger was so good back in the day that we likely will never see anything like him ever again, not even from Tiger.

He's 42. He has had four back surgeries. And the PGA Tour seems to be growing young stars like weeds.

But maybe, every now and then, we'll catch a glimpse of the old Tiger.

That's what the enormous crowd on the Copperhead Course was hoping for Thursday. Those who have been at this event for years swear they had never before seen a crowd like the one attending the Valspar's first round.

Thousands upon thousands stood 10 and 20 deep in some spots just to get a peek at Tiger. Valspar doesn't get crowds like that on Sunday, and this was only Thursday.

Many staked out a spot hours ahead of time. They were polite, for the most part, but occasionally a bit testy, too, as they rubbed shoulders, stood on tiptoe and peeked through little openings just to see Tiger swing a 2-iron or maybe take a couple of putts. Tiger brings out all the emotions of a crowd, from excitement to rudeness, from appreciation to frustration.

Hey, it's Tiger Woods Week. Fans are going to do whatever they can just in case Tiger turns back into Tiger.

HIGHLIGHTS: See the best of Tiger Woods' first round.

And, you know, there were a few moments Thursday when he rewarded them for their patience and wishes. Those were the times when you thought, "Hey, maybe Tiger's comeback isn't so crazy after all. Maybe this can be the week."

Like when his magnificent flop shot set up a birdie on the first hole. Like when his back-to-back birdies on 10 and 11 pushed him to 2 under for the day and just two shots off the lead. Like when he nearly made a hole-in-one on No. 17, sticking his drive just a couple of feet from the hole.

Or best of all, like his shot out of the woods on No. 16 when he let the club fly out of his hands to keep from breaking his arm on a tree trunk.

"My forearm hit the tree a little bit,'' he said.

This was vintage Tiger, turning oh-no into oh-wow. This was the magic the crowd was hoping for, and it responded with the loudest roars Innisbrook had all day.

"Still working on it,'' Woods said when asked where his game is. But you could tell he was pleased.

He should have been. Thursday was a good round for Tiger. A 1-under 70 was pretty impressive on a difficult course on a windy, chilly day. If he could have just knocked down a few more makeable putts, he might have been leading.

"This is a tough course,'' he said.

The stiff wind that came and went without warning, and then changed direction suddenly, had golfers all over the course guessing (and guessing wrongly) how it was going to affect their ball. Tiger and his playing partners, Jordan Spieth and Henrik Stenson, left shots short on some holes and flew the greens on others.

The Cooperhead Course had plenty of bite in it, and Spieth, the 2015 champion here, never figured it out, finishing 5 over and in a tie for 122nd, two shots from the bottom. Yet Tiger grinded out a solid round in what he said was the most difficult test he has had in his 11 rounds of golf in 2018.

He was three shot back after the first day, and unless he completely falls apart today, he not only will make the cut and stick around for the weekend, he'll have a chance to make a move Saturday.

If you think Thursday was wild, imagine what the weekend will be like if Woods has a chance to win. Crowds will be even bigger, even louder and even more hopeful that Tiger can be the Tiger they came to see.

Is Tiger all the way back?

No, not yet. But he's getting closer. We'll know more after today's second round.

But you might want to set aside some time this weekend. You just might see Tiger Woods being Tiger Woods.

Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.