golf 6 days ago

Woods looks closer than ever to winning again

The Associated Press — By DOUG FERGUSON - AP Golf Writer

PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — The red shirt didn't have a collar. His head doesn't have quite as much hair. His lower spine has been fused.

Everything else about Tiger Woods is starting to look familiar.

For the first time since the late summer of 2013, Woods worked the fans into a frenzy on the weekend and keep them on their toes right to the very end. He wound up one shot — one putt — short to Paul Casey in the Valspar Championship. He broke par all four rounds and tied for second, the first time he had done either of those since the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs in August 2013.

All that did was turn attention to this week at Bay Hill, where Woods has won eight times and twice ended long victory droughts.

He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2009 for his first victory after reconstructive knee surgery. He won there again in 2012 for his first victory since the scandal in his personal life, followed by various leg injuries.

"It's going to be good for me to get back," Woods said. "I've had some great memories there."

Casey ended a nine-year drought on the PGA Tour when he took the lead with three straight birdies on the back nine at Innisbrook, saved par over the last four holes for a 6-under 65 and then settled into a leather sofa in the locker room to see if anyone could catch him.

A playoff looked imminent when Patrick Reed tied for the lead with a birdie on the 14th hole and was in the middle of the 18th fairway, 133 yards away, for a chance at birdie for the win or a par to force a playoff.

And then someone else entered the picture.

Woods, who opened with a two-putt birdie to briefly share the lead, had gone 15 consecutive holes without a birdie and needed to finish birdie-birdie to catch Casey. His tee shot on the par-3 17th was long, rolling out some 45 feet away.

From the time the ball left his club, there was something inevitable about the putt . Woods posed, waiting for the grain in the green to take over, and it did at just the right time. The ball moved left and dropped into the cup, setting off more pandemonium.

Brandt Snedeker, playing with Woods, just smiled. Casey even got caught up in the emotion that swept over Innisbrook for four days.

"I loved his putt on 17. That was amazing," Casey said. "I thought he was going to hole the one on 18."

Maybe next time.

But after a week like this, next time doesn't seem all that far away — not with Bay Hill four days away, and the Masters a few weeks behind it.

Casey won on the PGA Tour for the first time since the Houston Open in 2009, a span of 132 starts, though he had won five around the world since. It was the second time he won a tournament with Woods in the field. The other occasion was in 2006 at the HSBC World Match Play at Wentworth, when Casey wore a red shirt Sunday. Woods had been eliminated at the start of the week.

Woods signed for his 70 and worked his way through the crowd of camera crews and officials to seek out Casey.

"It's the only time he's congratulated me immediately after a victory," Casey said. "Normally, it's the other way around. That's something special. Just really cool. I'm sure he was disappointed he didn't get the victory. I actually thought he was going to win today before the round started. I thought it was just teed up beautifully for him. I said a couple times, 'If I don't win this thing, I actually want Tiger to win it.'

"I'm glad it's this way."

Casey, a 40-year-old from England, is among the players from the previous generation who want to see Woods at his best again. Interest spikes, as record crowds and a big boost in TV ratings indicated. The energy makes a sleepy tournament feel just short of a major.

They remember the dominance. The young kids don't.

"I just want the young guys to see what we saw for such a long time," Casey said.

There might be a chance, which is remarkable considering the most recent timeline. Woods won by seven shots at Firestone in the Bridgestone Invitational in early August 2013 for his 79th career victory on the PGA Tour and still his last one.

Back problems first began to surface a week later. The following year, he missed the Masters after back surgery and returned too soon on a couple of occasions. Another back surgery followed in September 2015, then another a month later. He returned after 15 months and lasted two starts before he had fusion surgery.

Woods still didn't know what his future held at the Presidents Cup last October. Then, on Oct. 7, he posted a video of him hitting an iron . Eight days later, another video showed him hitting a driver. Another eight days passed, and he was hitting a stinger.

What really gets attention are the results. He still hasn't won. By all accounts, he's getting closer.