The golfer who has transformed Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course into a pre-spring carnival was introduced without fanfare on Friday before his second round at the Valspar Championship. The 10th hole starter said, simply, “On the tee, from Jupiter, Florida, Tiger Woods.”
Nothing more succinctly captured the what-have-you-done-for-us-lately mentality of sports. Hitting first in Woods’s group was Henrik Stenson, whom the starter described as “the current Olympic silver medalist.” The next to play was Jordan Spieth, who was introduced as the 2015 Valspar champion and the current British Open champion.
And then came the unvarnished greeting for Woods, who has no current victories to herald. The 14-time major champion and 79-time P.G.A. Tour title winner is making his first appearance at this tournament and his fourth official start since returning from back fusion surgery.
Woods restored the roars of yore by briefly holding the outright lead in the 12th competitive round of his official comeback. With a bogey on his last hole, the only blemish of his round of three-under 68, Woods dropped into a share of the early lead, at four-under, with Paul Casey (68), Brandt Snedeker (68) and Ryan Palmer (66) with more than half the field still on the course. Corey Conners, 26, who led after an opening 67, was one of the afternoon starters in the second round.
“Got a long way to go,” Woods said. “At least I’m there with a chance going into the weekend. Today was a good day.”
Woods took sole possession of first on his 14th hole, after his fourth birdie of the day, and that’s where he stayed until he made his lone bogey of the round, on his last hole, the par-4 ninth. Woods’s second shot landed in a spectator’s see-through bag. After retrieving his ball, which had nestled between a bottle of water and a sample packet, Woods took a free drop and chipped onto the green but didn’t make his six-foot par putt.
It was a rare miss on a day when most of Woods’s par putts were tap-ins, with the notable exception of a seven-footer he coolly drained at No. 7, his 16th hole. In only his 12th official competitive round in more than a year, Woods was dialed in on his irons, which afforded him birdie looks on several holes.
“I thought I was very patient in the way I hit the golf ball today, placed it away from a lot of flags. And when I had a few chances, I took a run at them,” Woods said.
He added, “I’m figuring the rhythm of the rounds.”
While Woods cruised into the weekend, Spieth and Stenson, who have combined for 14 P.G.A. Tour victories, including four majors, since Woods’s last victory, crashed out of the tournament. Spieth was at five-over after a 71, one stroke ahead of Stenson, who posted a second-round 74.
After opening with a 76 on Thursday, Spieth walked through the scoring area looking shellshocked and made a beeline for the practice green, where he putted until darkness fell. On Friday morning, Spieth appeared relaxed. After his first-hole introduction, Spieth, who wore a winter beanie to ward off the 48-degree morning chill, tipped an imaginary bill to the throng of fans surrounding the tee box.
After two solid shots, Spieth missed his six-foot birdie putt, capsulizing his recent putting woes. He said his struggles “were all about my own game.”
Still, it was hard to ignore the frenzy surrounding Woods, which at times made Stenson and Spieth seem invisible in plain sight. Woods said he was unaware that he ever had the lead to himself, because he never saw a leader board until he walked off his last green after his bogey. His focus was so fine-tuned that he didn’t hear the running commentary of all the amateur analysts and play-by-play announcers in the gallery.
The crowd following the threesome had the size and timbre of a major championship Sunday. The volunteers at many holes became so caught up in watching Woods that they neglected to marshal the fans, who spilled inside the ropes and staked out spots behind tee boxes or within a few feet of the players so they could take sharper photographs with their smartphones.
“He just has an extra following so the roars are a little louder,” Spieth said. “There’s certainly an energy about the gallery that you don’t have anywhere else.”
Spieth, 24, is part of the generation that was inspired to take up golf by Woods’s dominance. To this point, he and his peers have known Woods mostly as a mentor. At last year’s Presidents Cup, Spieth was one of the players Woods oversaw as an assistant captain for the United States team.
Snedeker, 37, who is old enough to have squared off against Woods when he was winning regularly, said of the younger Americans, “I think it will be harder for them because they only know Tiger as a friend, and they don’t know Tiger as the ‘cut your head off on 18 and make that putt to win the tournament’ kind of guy.”
Casey, 40, remembers that Woods well and was thrilled to be tied with him with 36 holes left.
“I want him to play brilliant golf, want him to win again because I want these kids to see what we dealt with for a long, long time,” Casey said. “I’m not saying this in a nasty way. I want them to kind of experience it, which is why I really hope he wins, if not this week, soon.”