Tiger Woods finishes one stroke back, but future triumphs seem likely

Devil Ball Golf

You believed. I believed. We all believed Tiger Woods was going to win on Sunday at the Valspar Championship, that he was going to sweep away a decade’s worth of injuries and scandals with a stroke of his putter. It wasn’t to be on this particular day … but Woods had a chance to win the tournament on the week’s final hole, and not even the hardiest Tiger fanboys would have expected that as recently as four days ago.

Woods, who finished at -9 to winner Paul Casey’s -10, spent the first three days of the Valspar, a tournament he’d never played before, lurking with the expert timing of a master showman, ascending the ladder with scores of 70, 68, and 67 to climb right to the top of the leaderboard. He held a share of the lead for a moment Saturday, and entered Sunday a single stroke behind Corey Conners. (“Corey who? Tiger will SMOKE him,” you thought. So did we all.)

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Tiger Woods plays his shot from the second tee during the final round of the Valspar Championship. (AFP)
Tiger Woods plays his shot from the second tee during the final round of the Valspar Championship. (AFP)

Sporting the familiar red-and-black, Woods stepped to the first tee at 1:50 p.m. local time. He’d entered the final round of a tournament within one stroke of the lead 69 previous times in his career, and he’d won 62 of those — an astonishing closing percentage. The 10-deep galleries, stuffed with “get in the hole” and “Bababooey” bros who’d come out of retirement, fully expected to see Woods step right over the bodies of his competitors like — to reference another 2000s icon — a striding Allen Iverson.

When Woods curled his eagle putt on 1 to within inches of the hole and tapped in for birdie, grabbing a share of the lead on a Sunday for the first time in forever, disbelief radiated. Could this really happen? Could we be looking at one of the all-time great comebacks in sports history?

Maybe, but it wasn’t going to happen Sunday. The first indication that Woods wasn’t on his game came on the fourth hole, when he slopped a 5-foot par putt past the hole to give back his birdie. And even his moments of swagger, like a gorgeously arcing tee shot on the 6th, didn’t translate into on-card success.

Woods played competent, competitive golf for the rest of the afternoon, which is more than anyone had any right to expect prior to Thursday. But it wasn’t good enough to keep pace with co-leaders Patrick Reed and Casey, and it wasn’t bad enough to keep him out of the hunt until his final holes.

There were chances, so many chances. Woods left putt after putt on the course, none more painful than two long-but-makeable chances on 13 and 14. Had he converted either of those, he’d have been within a shot of the co-leaders, with opportunities to turn up the heat on the final holes. Woods rolled onward, unable to close the two-stroke gap at the top of the leaderboard.

And then — just to remind us of who we’re still talking about here — Woods went and dunked a 44-foot birdie putt on 17 to get within a stroke of the co-leaders. He stood in the middle of the fairway on 18 with a chance to win the tournament outright, then stood over a putt with a chance to force a playoff with Casey, and who ever thought that would happen again?

So what undid Woods? Pressure? Perhaps. In the years after his scandal, Woods developed an ugly habit of collapsing on Saturdays at majors. (And then he stopped making cuts in majors, and then he stopped even playing in them.) How he’ll do at Augusta, presumably his first major since 2015, remains to be seen, but at least at the Valspar, he seemed to harness the demons in his skull through the first three rounds. He wasn’t able to convert the Sunday putts that he’d dropped all week, and that, in the end, undid him.

“I keep getting a little better and a little sharper,” Woods said after the round. “I had a good shot at winning this golf tournament. A couple of putts here and there and it could’ve been a different story.”

The astonishing putt on 17 aside, Woods didn’t have much to offer on Sunday. But the fact that he was playing with a late Sunday tee time at all is a tremendous victory in itself. And it’s a strong indication — not a hint, not a hope, but a thirty-foot-high neon sign — that Woods still has some career highlights ahead. And that’s something that none of us expected.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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