How Tiger Woods delivered a weekend Tampa Bay will never forget

Tiger Woods didn't win, but Tampa Bay did.
Tiger Woods signs autographs after finishing his round at the Copperhead Course on Sunday (3/11/18) during the final round of the Valspar Championship at the Innisbrook Golf and Spa Resort in Palm Harbor. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times
Tiger Woods signs autographs after finishing his round at the Copperhead Course on Sunday (3/11/18) during the final round of the Valspar Championship at the Innisbrook Golf and Spa Resort in Palm Harbor. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published March 12, 2018|Updated March 12, 2018

PALM HARBOR — And the winner of the 2018 Valspar Championship was … not Tiger Woods.

No disrespect to the guy who actually did win the tournament, but, frankly, who cares who won? That's not what this past week was about. It was about Tiger.

Crowds never seen before at Innisbrook — estimated at more than 30,000 a day — lined dozens deep and hung from trees and sat on shoulders to watch one player and it wasn't Paul Casey. Spectators didn't camp out on lawn chairs in certain spots for more than five hours just to watch Patrick Reed take one shot.

They went to rock-concert extremes for Tiger.

"Totally worth it," one fan yelled out when Woods passed by.

The galleries were lined with fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, seniors and toddlers, from all races. Some were golf fans. Many, you could tell, were not.

Most were there for one reason.

It was their chance to see something they had never seen before, like a comet or a rocket launch. It was their one opportunity to see one of the greatest and most transformative athletes ever, to tell their grandkids that, yes, there was that one time they saw the legendary Tiger Woods.

But the Tiger who showed up wasn't golf's version of a baseball card, something to pull out and look at to remember the good old days. Tiger made sure he gave the fans more than just a stroll down memory lane. He darn near won, finishing in a tie for second after just missing a 37-foot putt on the 72nd hole that would have sent him into a playoff.

Because of that, the week at Innisbrook turned out to be everything we could have possibly hoped for. It was everything we dreamed of when Tiger said he was coming to Valspar.

It was Tiger. Vintage Tiger. He was in contention with every swing of his club except for the very last.

What made it even more special was it wasn't supposed to even happen. For him or for us.

After all the back surgeries and off-course issues, there was a real chance that the 42-year-old Tiger was finished as a golfer. Less than a year ago, when you saw dash-cam video of him being arrested because he had too many pain meds in his system, did you honestly believe you would ever see him on a golf course again?

And even if he did, by some miracle, make it back, what reason did we have to think he would actually play here? Tiger had never showed up in the 16 previous tournaments here.

Yet he did show up, totally unexpectedly and at the last minute, on our pride-and-joy golf course in Palm Harbor. For three days, he lived up to the kind of over-the-top hype that only Tiger can produce. He gave us thrills and chills with jaw-dropping drives, masterful iron shots and a few long birdie putts that him starting Sunday just a shot out of the lead and a chance to win his first tournament in nearly five years.

NBC's Dan Hicks opened Sunday's broadcast by saying, "The anticipation for this day was something we haven't seen in years. The whole game changed with his presence."

It was something we had never seen in Tampa Bay. Even Tiger admitted the crowd was special.

But Tiger couldn't close it out. He wore his patented Sunday red shirt, but he couldn't produce his usual Sunday magic. He didn't play poorly, but he didn't play exceptionally either. He just didn't give himself a chance. His approaches weren't good enough to give him makeable birdie putts. As a result, he was just pretty good with a 1-under round of 70.

Before he left, however, he gave us one final memory when he drained a 44-foot putt on No. 17 to pull within one of the lead.

While the fans were emotional, Tiger was not. After his round, he talked of disappointment, but he also talked about getting better and grinding and the process of winning again. It's what makes him Tiger. While we're celebrating his greatness, he's concentrating on what makes him great.

Tiger now moves on to the next tournament over in Orlando and then to the Masters next month. However, we're left to remember this past weekend in Tampa Bay and remember it forever.

Who knows if we'll ever see anything like this again? Who know if Woods will ever come back to Valspar? Even if he does, it's hard to imagine it ever being like this again. When you consider everything — Tiger's first Valspar, his career, his comeback, how he played — it was a perfect storm.

And that made for a perfect weekend.

Contact Tom Jones at Follow @tomwjones