Tiger Woods and the return of the fist pump

Tiger Woods celebrates his birdie on the third hole during the third round of the Valspar Championship. (Jim Damaske, Times)
Tiger Woods celebrates his birdie on the third hole during the third round of the Valspar Championship. (Jim Damaske, Times)
Published March 10
Updated March 10

PALM HARBOR — Here's how you know Tiger Woods is back:

The fist pump.

The patented Tiger fist pump made its first appearance at the Valspar Championship on Saturday. It wasn't the full-fledged right-uppercut-while-screaming, just-took-the-lead-at-the-U.S. Open fist pump. But make no mistake, it was a fist pump, followed by a broad smile and a tip of the cap to an Innisbrook crowd that was going downright bonkers.

At that moment, even Tiger got caught up in the emotion of what is turning out to be an incredible week. For him. For us. For golf.

On a make-or-break Saturday, Woods made the most of it and put himself in position to do what many thought wasn't possible: once again win a PGA Tour event.

He's tied for second, a shot off the lead after a sensational round of 67, highlighted by the shot of the day.

Chants of "Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!" echoed across the ninth green of the Copperhead Course as Woods unleashed his most magical moment of the tournament.

After sending his drive over the par-3 ninth green, Woods was in the rough, slightly more than 30 feet from the hole.

"It was a bit of a dicey lie," Woods' caddie, Joe LaCava, said.

Then came the magic. Woods chipped the ball slightly into the air. Then, as the crowd grew louder and louder, he watched it roll down the green and in.

"I just smiled," playing partner Brandt Snedeker said. "That's just him."

"He hit a beautiful shot," LaCava said. "Perfect speed."

As soon as the ball hit the bottom of the cup, all eyes turned to Woods.

Until then, the Innisbrook crowd — larger than Friday's 30,000 and growing by the day — had already seen some of the old Tiger exclamation points. The twirling of the club after a great drive. The walking in of a putt from more than 20 feet. The crowd even caught a glimpse of the angry Tiger, frustrated over an errant drive.

But it had yet to see the fist pump. He was saving it for a special occasion.
"I was semi-joking (Saturday) back at the house," Woods said. "I've hit so many chips that haven't gone in."

Woods figured he was due to make at least one. When he did, he broke out the fist pump.

This was what golf fans in Tampa Bay had been dreaming about from the moment Woods announced two weeks ago that he was coming to the Valspar. Maybe he could do something to remind us of the old Tiger. Maybe he could hit a shot that reminded everyone of his past glory. Maybe he could do something to give us a memory.

The chip on No. 9 was such a memory.

"On the next tee," LaCava said, "it was so loud."

Every tee has been loud. And every fairway. And every green.

Woods is his own traveling rock festival. Take the first hole Saturday, when he yanked his drive well left into the woods. Like jumping into a mosh pit, Woods went into the crowd and, surrounded by camera phones, hit a near-perfect second shot, though he was close enough to the fans to know what they had for breakfast.

As the crowd — many in it wearing "TW" hats and shirts — roared with approval, Woods swaggered back onto his stage and continued to thrill arguably the largest crowd there has ever been at Valspar. Even Woods, who is used to being in the center of such madness, acknowledged this week's crowds.

"Very, very loud," he said. "The people in Tampa are really into it and have been incredible. So nice, and (they've) just been into it and into this event."

Snedeker had the perfect word to describe what it's like: "Craziness."

Not that Snedeker minds.

"If I can't have fun today," he said, "I need to find another job."

The chip on No. 9 wasn't the only great moment of the day for Woods. With the help of the chip, Woods birdied three holes in a row to move to 8 under at one point. For the second round in a row, he turned in only one bogey.

"You don't want to get carried away with one good tournament," LaCava said. "But you can see signs of him playing well and hitting it better. I'm not surprised, no."

No one should be surprised. And don't be surprised if today produces a few more fist pumps.

And a Tiger victory.

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