PALM HARBOR, Fla. — The Tiger Woods Feel-Good Tour is officially in full swing. Woods's back feels good and he's back on the first page of the leaderboard at the Valspar Championship after a second straight sub-par round.
This isn't some aging rocker making a nostalgic tour for old-times sake. Woods, in just his 12th round of his latest comeback, fired a three-under 68 at Innisbrook Resort's demanding Copperhead Course and shared the 36-hole clubhouse lead at 140 with Brandt Snedeker, Paul Casey and Ryan Palmer among the morning wave finishers.
As of this writing, Canadian Corey Conners, in the afternoon wave, holds the outright lead at seven under.
Woods's latest comeback attempt appears on the verge of going "next level," as the kids say, if Woods can contend for his first win since the 2013 WGC Bridgestone Invitational. Count Phil Mickelson, winner of the WGC Mexico Championship, among those who thinks Woods could shock the world again.
"He’s always one-upped me,” Mickelson said on The Dan Patrick Show Thursday. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he went out and won this weekend to one-up me again.”
Only a bogey at his last hole of the day, the 9th, prevented Woods from shooting a bogey-free round, but he still managed to whip his fellow playing competitors, Henrik Stenson and Jordan Spieth, the last two British Open champions — by nine strokes.
"I'm up there," Woods said. "At least I'm there with a chance going into the weekend. Today was a good day."
Woods's stellar play whipped his fans into a frenzy. After everything he's been through, he remains a beloved figure. When Woods committed to the tournament a week ago, tournament organizers added 30 extra shuttles buses, 90 more port-o-lets, and an extra admission gate. The swarming crowds were so large that they disrupted cell service. Fans who tried to lineup near the 10th tee more than 30 minutes before his tee time had to settle for 100 yards down the fairway to see along the rope line. Grown men and women were as giddy as school kids at recess to see him play again.
They welcomed him back with cheers of encouragement and some wore shirts with a silhouette of Woods's patented upper-cut fist pump above the words "Make Sundays Great Again." There were even a few dressed in tiger onesies. Bonnie Nieman ("Spelled like the department store, but I don't put out a Christmas catalog," she said) tracked Woods on the front nine and said, "This is the biggest thing to happen to Innisbrook since 1996." That's when Woods last played at the Copperhead Course, and his return inspired Nieman to bring her grandson, Addison. Spieth said it felt like a major championship out there.
How difficult was it to catch a glimpse of Woods on Friday? Emma Stenson, wife of Henrik, had taken daughter Lisa out of school so she could watch her father. She resorted to slipping inside the ropes for a better view, but it wasn't long before the Tour's security staff shooed her back among the great unwashed. "I'm very disappointed," she said.
But those who wished to see a vintage Woods performance got their money’s worth, and some. On an unseasonably cool morning, Woods yanked his opening tee shot at No. 10 into the trees, but scrambled for an easy par. He made his first birdie of the day two holes later when he planted a short iron inside six feet and made the putt. One hole later, he stuck a mid-iron at the 187-yard par 3 to six feet and canned the putt. He made the turn in two under.
At 10:47 a.m., when Woods drained a 12-foot birdie at the 2nd hole, his 11th of the day, he had a share of the lead. Three holes later, at 11:37, he got up-and-down from the right greenside bunker at the par-5 5th for birdie and his name returned atop the leaderboard. As Ron Burgundy might say, this story escalated quickly.
At a tournament sponsored by a paint company, Woods didn't produce a masterpiece, but his misses off the tee (mostly to the left) were playable and he was able to recover.
"It's getting better every day," caddie Joe LaCava said. "He's hitting more of the stinger shot and that piercing 3-wood so you know he's feeling decent when he hits those shots."
It was a stress-free round until the last few holes. At the 7th Woods chipped 12 feet past the hole to the fringe. When he drained the par putt, he lifted his putter to the sky like old times.
On his last hole, the 9th, Woods tried to attack the front-right hole location from 114 yards and missed the green to the right. The ball landed in a spectator's handbag, from where Woods was granted a free drop. His chip grazed the stick and stopped six feet from the hole, but he pulled the par putt.
Still, for the first time in 930 days and less than 11 months after having his back fused, Woods held the clubhouse lead on the PGA Tour. It's a remarkable comeback story in the making, but Woods refused to look ahead to the possibility of his 80th Tour title.
"Got a long way to go," he said.
For live scoring from the Valspar Championship, visit our leaderboard.