Is Tiger Woods really back?

PALM HARBOR, FL - MARCH 11: Tiger Woods plays his shot from the 14th tee during the final round of the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort Copperhead Course on March 11, 2018 in Palm Harbor, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
PALM HARBOR, FL - MARCH 11: Tiger Woods plays his shot from the 14th tee during the final round of the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort Copperhead Course on March 11, 2018 in Palm Harbor, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images) /

After a great week at the Valspar Championship, is Tiger Woods really back?

In case you hadn’t heard, Tiger Woods played some golf on Sunday. Did he win the Valspar Championship? No, he did not. So, without the victory, the question remains: Is Tiger Woods really back? I’ll save you the suspense. The correct answer is an emphatic yes. And is golf better for it? Absolutely.

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. I almost feel bad for Paul Casey, who beat Tiger and Patrick Reed by one stroke on Sunday. No, I don’t feel bad for that $1,170,000 check he took home from Tampa after a brilliant final-round 65 that included just 21 putts. I feel bad that no matter what he did on Sunday, he was NEVER going to be the focus. No matter what he did or who else was near the top of the leaderboard, Sunday was always going to be Tiger’s day. But that’s okay, right?

Well, some people would actually say no. That’s one reason why so many people have never liked Woods. They feel that he takes the spotlight away from anyone else playing in a tournament in which he plays. But did you see Casey after his big win on Sunday, which somehow was just his second on the PGA Tour (he does have 13 victories on the European Tour)? He was so excited to simply say “I beat Tiger” and that in itself speaks volumes.

Yes, Casey moved into eighth place in the FedExCup standings. Yes, he jumped from 17th to 12th in the Official World Golf Ranking. But is that what he was excited about? No, he was excited about beating Woods on a Sunday. That’s the Tiger Effect.

If you really want to get into it, the Tiger Effect can be seen all over the golf world. How many of these young players got into golf in the first place simply because they watched Woods in his prime? Think about it.

Tiger won that historic first Masters in 1997. Dustin Johnson was 12. Rory McIlroy was about to turn eight. Jordan Spieth was three. The list goes on. For the next 15 years, countless other pros watched Woods dominate the golf world, winning 13 more majors after that first victory at Augusta. You’re crazy if you think that these guys aren’t happy to have Woods around and competing at a high level again.

As I was watching the coverage on Sunday (and putting together this recap and video highlights piece of Tiger’s final round), I was also following along on Twitter and watching all of these other tour pros chime in with their thoughts and reactions to what Tiger was doing and it was incredible. I think Ben Crane’s tweet was my favorite.

Did Woods play his best round on Sunday? Absolutely not. After a birdie at the first, he couldn’t capitalize on some opportunities and he certainly left a few shots out there. Sure, 10 years ago it wouldn’t have been a question that Woods was going to win that tournament.

In fact, a streak was broken on Sunday as that was the first time in 23 non-major tournaments on the PGA Tour that Woods didn’t win when either leading or within one stroke of the lead after 54 holes. So since he didn’t win, Tiger can’t really be back, right? Are you mad?

After four back surgeries since 2014, Tiger has played in just eight competitive tournaments since 2015. Eight. And the Valspar was just his fifth in this latest comeback. You don’t think it’s encouraging that he’s finishing tournaments, playing tournaments in consecutive weeks and putting up finishes like he is? Yes, he missed the cut at the Genesis Open at Riviera. It happens. It didn’t happen often to Tiger in his prime but his streak was freakishly irregular.

Missed cuts happen to the best players in the world. Ask Spieth, McIlroy and Henrik Stenson, all of whom missed the cut this past weekend at the Valspar. It’s not a good argument.

Let’s take a look at the rest in this comeback. He finished ninth at the Hero World Challenge. Okay, there are only 18 golfers in that field and the course wasn’t particularly challenging for these guys. I’ll give you that one. But then he goes and gets a top-25 at the Farmers Insurance Open (T-23). Then he goes and finishes in solo 12th at The Honda Classic. Then he nearly wins the Valspar. You don’t think he’s getting better? You don’t think that swing looks good and he’s back and ready to compete against the best players in the world on the biggest stages?

More reps mean more consistency, which in turn means more confidence. He’s only getting better and the short game issues that plagued him a few years back have all but disappeared. Sure, he missed some birdie opportunities on Sunday but he had made some testy par putts, clutch putts that have helped define his entire career.

Then, of course, there was this.

Tell me you didn’t get chills watching that live. That’s the Tiger we’ve been wanting to see. That’s the Tiger we’re going to see more of moving forward.

Personally, I’m going to watch golf either way. The game is full of young stars that keep my attention. But things are just more interesting when Tiger is around. They just are. You think the network execs at CBS aren’t drooling right now at the thought of Woods being in contention at The Masters? You don’t think that these young guys like having Tiger there, especially with him being so much more open to help them out these days? Ask Jason Day if Woods is willing to help anyone out.

Doesn’t it only benefit everyone else when Tiger is playing? Take your casual viewer that maybe hasn’t watched much golf since Woods has been on the shelf. Perhaps they tune in to watch him and see how talented Justin Thomas or Brooks Koepka or Hideki Matsuyama or Rickie Fowler is and decide to keep tuning in.

So what’s next for Tiger? Well, we don’t have to wait long for the encore as he’s ready to tee it up on Thursday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. If you’re keeping score, he’s won at Bay Hill eight times and is actually coming into the tournament as the favorite. Think that’s a sign that he’s back?

Is Tiger going to win at Bay Hill? Maybe. Maybe not. Is he going to win again on the PGA Tour? Most definitely. He didn’t work to get back to be a novelty. He’s just too competitive for that. We saw the flashes of brilliance that made him the legend that he is over the past few days and there’s more coming. Is he going to dominate like he did in his prime? Of course not. That stretch was insane and will likely never be duplicated. Maybe that’s why people are so hesitant to actually say that he’s back. His own standard is getting in the way, which I suppose is a nice problem to have.

For a while, at least, there’s going to be that “what if” factor when it comes to his health? But from everything we’ve seen thus far, he looks healthier than he has in a long time. He also looks more focused than he has in a long time. That could wind up being a scary combination.

Like it or not, Tiger Woods is back. And the fun is just beginning.

Next: Tiger Woods named 2019 Presidents Cup captain

What do you make of Woods’ latest comeback? Will he win again on the PGA Tour or win another major? Feel free to join in the conversation in the comments section below.