Tiger’s Comeback Seems More Believable With Commitment to Valspar

Woods will play in Tampa Bay’s PGA TOUR stop

This morning, with the deadline to commit to play in the Valspar Championship next week at Innisbrook swiftly approaching, Tiger Woods took to twitter and made his decision official. He will be playing at Innisbrook next weekend.

It has been ten years since Tiger Woods has won a major tournament. It is a testament to how good his prime was that, despite this, many people still wonder if he can come back after all the surgeries and all the inconsistent play to not just win, but dominate the sport once again. That may not be a realistic belief, but when we remember what Tiger Woods has already done on a golf course, sometimes realism gets a bit lost.

Woods will be making his first trip to Innisbrook since 1996, when the tournament was sponsored by JC Penney. Back then, it was a showcase of PGA Tour and LPGA Tour players together, and both the tournament and course have undergone major changes.

A general view of the tee box of the 17th hole of the Copperhead course during the first round of the Transitions Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 17, 2011, in Palm Harbor, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

The Copperhead course is one of the toughest regular stops on the PGA Tour. Golfers welcome the challenge, as most regular season tournaments are low-scoring affairs where the golf course itself rarely poses much threat to the field. Innisbrook is proud to be different in that regard. This difficulty should only help Tiger as he tries to get his game back into form in advance of the year’s four major tournaments.

The increased workload is more important than ever. Not only does Woods need to shake off the rust of having not been able to enter tournament play regularly for years, he needs to catch up to an increasingly talented and young field that tends not to skip a lot of tournaments.

Many of Tiger’s classic advantages, the things that allowed him to dominate the Tour for so long, have been lost to time. When he was young, Woods was the most physically fit player in the field, a player who spent as much time in the gym as the golf course. Both because he set that example, and because age and injuries have taken their toll, Tiger Woods simply isn’t able to out-hustle the competition like he once did. The increasing number of golfers who keep in shape, as well as constantly improving technology, have taken away the length advantage that Tiger used to hold.

None of this, of course, is to say that Woods is done or that he cannot go on another run. Tiger Woods, after all, is still younger than Jack Nicklaus was in his legendary 1986 Masters run. Phil Mickelson, five years Tiger’s elder, still proves competitive despite having battled arthritis for some time now.

Think of Tiger Woods as though he’s in the second act of a sports movie. He was on top of the world, the best golfer anybody had ever seen and a near-lock to challenge the biggest records in the sport. Then he fell from grace, both in his private life and almost at the same time on the golf course. After surgeries, and rehabilitation both injury-related and in his personal life, Tiger Woods has started to hit the comeback trail.

Adam Hadwin and Patrick Cantlay on the 13th green during the final round of the Valspar Championship golf tournament Sunday, March 12, 2017, at Innisbrook in Palm Harbor, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

In those movie terms, the Valspar could be the beginning of the training montage that takes Tiger from looking old to looking like his old self. That old Tiger can only be unlocked by playing as much competitive golf as possible, if even then. Woods knows this. Remember, he did not get to the top of the golf world through being naturally gifted, but via working out and working harder than his competition.

Most of the PGA TOUR has been playing golf from a young age, but Tiger was showing off for talk show hosts at age four. There had been players before Tiger, like Greg Norman and Gary Player, who showed the world what a little bit of working out can do for one’s golf game.

We tend to miss the lesson because of how dominant Tiger was, and how we know none of us duffers could put out a performance like that, but Tiger’s has always been a story of hard work over everything else.

There is a famous anecdote of Tiger Woods telling John Daly that, had Woods been given the natural strength and build that Daly had, he might not need to spend as much time lifting weights. Daly, of course, is a big guy, and was gifted with a lot of power in his swing as a result. Woods had to earn his distance.

It was Tiger who displayed a practice routine that other golf notables, including people who have coached him, have found grueling and brutal. Simply put, he won all those tournaments not because he was born better at golf than Phil Mickelson or David Duval, he won because he spent more time working on his game than anybody else in the field and it showed with every swing.

That advantage is gone now. In his forties, Tiger’s body will not allow him to push himself the way he did in his twenties. Not only that, but keep in mind the fantastic young PGA field of today grew up idolizing Tiger Woods. Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, and the rest of the new crop of excellent golfers came up in a golf world that had been changed by the man in his Sunday red.

It was once rare for a pro golfer to cross-train and keep in athletic shape. Now it’s rare for a tour regular to not do that. Everybody had to work out. They had to follow the example set by Tiger Woods. They also had to play on courses that never got shorter after years and years of “Tigerproofing.”

The field, for lack of better phrasing, has been made in Tiger’s image. A significant percentage of the people who make a good living winning golf tournaments might never have picked up a club in the first place had it not been for the great golfer burning bright throughout their formative years. They play the game the way he played the game, even if they carry themselves more along the lines of Mickelson, Daly, or even Happy Gilmore.

In a way, it would be very nice to see Woods embrace his role as the catalyst that sent golf into a new era. Seeing Tiger pal around with the more friendly field would be great, the victory lap he deserves.

It’s hard to imagine Tiger Woods playing on the Champions Tour. That is still a long way in the golfer’s future, of course, but the point is that there’s a strong chance of Tiger eventually retiring to his yacht named Privacy and living a life outside of the spotlight. This is to say, enjoy whatever version of Tiger is left, because this is a limited time offer.

Tiger Woods, right, talks to Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, on the 17th hole during the second round of the Genesis Open golf tournament at Riviera Country Club on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)

Rory McIlroy has also committed to the tournament at Innisbrook, as well as the Arnold Palmer Invitational the next week. These declarations make the Florida Swing an even more critical stretch of the PGA TOUR’s schedule.

Excitement is building for the Valspar next weekend, and with Tiger Woods’ entry in the tournament, the eyes of all of golf will be on Tampa Bay.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.