Tiger Woods has lost none of his crowd-pulling prowess despite notorious indiscretions on the personal front and several years of injury-induced torment that had cast doubts over his future.
The 42-year-old, who has won 79 titles, including 14 majors, has made intermittent appearances on the PGA Tour over the past four years because of debilitating back problems that required surgeries.
In 2016, he missed all the four majors and several other tournaments, and in April 2017 he announced that he had undergone spinal fusion surgery, his fourth back operation since 2014, to alleviate debilitating.
Recovery time required up to six months, meaning that Woods would spend the rest of the year without playing any professional golf.
Woods returned to competitive golf at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas where he finished at 8 under tied for 9th. His world ranking, which had slipped to 1,199th, rose to 668th with that effort, his biggest jump in the world rankings in his career.
That was an indication that he could be back to where he belongs, and on Sunday that belief was strengthened when he finished tied for second at the Valspar Championship in Florida.
In the final round he gave fans a glimpse of his extraordinary talent, stroking 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.
But his bid to force eventual winner Paul Casey to extra holes petered out when his long birdie putt stopped a couple of feet short at the par-four 18th.
Building momentum from 12th place at the Honda Classic two weeks ago in his third official tournament since undergoing spinal fusion surgery, 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!”
When Woods returned from a previous injury for the 2008 US Open, where he struggled the first day but ultimately claimed a dramatic sudden death victory over Rocco Mediate that followed an 18-hole playoff, Mediate said, “This guy does things that are just not normal by any stretch of the imagination.”
His fans would be hoping for some more magic in the coming months.
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