PALM HARBOR — It is anybody's guess as to how Tiger Woods will fare in the Valspar Championship when he tees it up at 12:46 p.m. Thursday at Innisbrook. This is not the Woods of 10 or 20 years ago, capable of winning a tournament by double digits.
This is the 42-year-old Woods who has played 10 rounds of competitive golf this season, who is trying to recover from his fourth back surgery.
He used to say the only reason he entered a golf tournament was to win it. Lately, he has been talking about how it's all about improving, shaking off the rust.
Woods up close appears fit and ready. Aside from an iron hit short and an occasional faded tee shot, he was equipped with all the shots Wednesday in the pro-am on the Copperhead Course.
And he definitely still has a presence among his peers.
"I'll feel probably more nervous on the first tee (Thursday) than I do on the first tee normally, just given the setting," said Jordan Spieth, a three-time major champion. Spieth, who won the 2015 Valspar Championship, is paired with Woods and Henrik Stenson on Thursday and Friday.
Everyone, including Tiger Woods, seems to understand that this is a very big deal. Woods is used to it, but that doesn't make it any easier. @ValsparChamp @Innisbrook @TigerWoods @TB_Times @TomWJones @PGATOUR https://t.co/tdxG2XYR6p— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) March 7, 2018
Suggesting Woods can win the tournament might be a stretch. Then again, it might not. In three 2018 tournaments, he has finished tied for 23rd at the Farmer's Insurance Open, missed the cut at the Genesis Open and finished 12th two weeks ago at the Honda Classic. In the Honda Classic, he was in contention until the back nine on the final day.
Woods has declared himself physically healthy, enough that he has committed to play the next two weeks in preparation for the Masters on April 5-9.
"I know people are saying that I've been erratic, inconsistent, but 10 rounds is not that many," Woods said. "I looked up some of my stats (Tuesday) night. I wanted to see where I ranked. I'm not even on the rankings. I haven't played enough."
But when Woods is in a tournament, he's always considered a contender. Fans want to see him win, and his fellow players know he can win. He has won 79 times in his PGA Tour career, including 14 majors.
"If there's ever somebody who can get back to the top of his game, as long as he stays healthy, (Woods) would be the last one I'd count out," Stenson said. "Everyone is interested on how he will fare. It's great to have him back, especially from where he was coming from."
Rory McIlroy has played with Woods during his latest return from surgery. He has seen signs of the old Woods, and he believes Woods can return to form.
If you're going to Innisbrook this week to watch Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and the other PGA Tour pros competing in the Valspar Championship, here are a few things to keep in mind. @ValsparChamp @Innisbrook @TB_Times @RodneyHomeTeam https://t.co/WojaUqbfUe pic.twitter.com/2tUvIlIMb3— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) March 7, 2018
"I think it would be silly not to (believe that) because of what he's done," McIlroy said.
Woods hasn't won a tournament since 2013, the World Golf Championship Bridgestone Invitational. He won five times that year. Then came his back injuries and a arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence last year (he pleaded guilty to reckless driving after participating in a DUI first-offender program). His golf career has had starts and stops during that time, but this season has mostly been a go.
He hasn't played the Copperhead Course in almost 22 years, since he teamed with Kelli Kuehne in the mixed-team JCPenney Classic. He said he remembers a bit of the course and the only real change is his equipment. He played the front nine Tuesday in a practice round, then got in a full round in the pro-am.
He said he likes the course.
"It does fit my eye well," Woods said. "It's very tricky off the tee, and I have been able to shape it. I got to hit highs and lows, draws and cuts. It's a test."
Woods seemed at ease on the course Wednesday.
"I'm ecstatic to have a chance to play again and have a chance to win golf tournaments and compete," Woods said. "There was awhile there where it didn't look like I was ever going to be out here again, not in the capacity of a professional player. But here I am playing again, and it's a lot of fun."