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PALM HARBOR, Florida, March 11 (Reuters) - Tiger Woods fell short of an 80th PGA Tour title on Sunday but still gave adoring fans a thrill late in the final round at the Valspar Championship.
With victory apparently out of his grasp, Woods stroked a 43-foot birdie putt that broke perfectly into the middle of the 17th hole and took him to the last with a chance of a playoff.
The old-time roar faded, though, and his bid to force eventual winner Paul Casey to extra holes also petered out when his long birdie putt stopped a couple of feet short at the par-four 18th.
Still, finishing joint second with Patrick Reed at nine-under 275 at the Copperhead course at Innisbrook Resort will further fuel belief that the 14-times major champion is back in business.
Building momentum from 12th place at the Honda Classic two weeks ago in his third official tournament since undergoing spinal fusion surgery last April, Woods was treated this week like a returning hero.
Thousands lined the fairway at every hole Woods played and his galleries dwarfed those for the rest of the field with attendance at a tournament that last year drew 112,000 soaring to more than 150,000 for his first appearance.
As Woods waited to hit his uphill 185-yard, seven-iron approach to the 18th, fans pleaded for another bit of magic.
"Tiger, this is what you're meant for," shouted one spectator. "Do your thing!" yelled another.
But Woods, a bit off in his iron control on Sunday, left his approach 39 feet short of the cup and his two-putt gave him a closing one-under 70.
It was not quite the climax fans wanted but that did not keep them from cheering him to the skies as he walked to the green.
Woods lifted his golf club into the air and touched the bill of his cap in response, before raising his hat fully off his head and waving as the ovation grew louder.
"I felt very comfortable, actually. I've been here before a few times," the 42-year-old said when asked if he had felt any nerves.
"My game was quite solid this entire week. As a whole, I felt very good about what I did this week."
Right from the start, Woods was serenaded with shouts of "We love you, Tiger!" and "C'mon Big Cat!"
One man told his friend standing off the second fairway: "I'm here for one reason. Tiger."
On his way off the course, Woods stopped to sign autographs, showing a good deal more patience than he had during his heyday.
"Wow, what an amazing week ... people, atmosphere, adrenaline, back nine on Sunday, man I’ve missed this," Woods later tweeted.
"Getting better. Thank you for all the support!"
Woods hopes to build on this momentum when he journeys next week to a more familiar stomping ground - the Bay Hill resort in Orlando where he has won the tournament formerly hosted by Arnold Palmer eight times.
"It's going to be good for me to get back," Woods told reporters.
"I've had some great memories there." (Editing by Andrew Both/Nick Mulvenney)