Twenty minutes after tapping in for par on the 18th hole for a thrilling, captivating, disappointing runner-up finish at the Valspar Championship — after one hug for the day's worst player (playing partner Brandt Snedeker signed for a 78) and another for its best (winner Paul Casey), after one signature on his scorecard and dozens more on items thrust at him from screaming fans, after saying all the right things to the assembled scrum of media — Tiger Woods eased into a golf cart that would whisk him away from all of it.
Woods exiting the property in a cart has not been an positive sign of late. Images of mid-round WDs come to mind: the 2014 Honda Classic, 2014 WGC-Bridgestone, 2015 Farmers Insurance Open. Over the last five years uncertainty has been the only certainty in Woods's game. Watching him leave a tournament has meant not knowing when he'd play another one.
But this time things are different for Woods — and his fans. His cart rides are just cart rides; in fact, he'll be thrust back in the public eye almost immediately, taking just one day off before preparation begins for this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. He won't finish in the top three every week, but by now we've seen enough from Woods that we know his health and form aren't a mirage. He's here to stay. "I've been here before a few times," Woods told reporters after the round. "So I felt very comfortable."
There's a surreal element to his being back, because it isn't supposed to work like this. Athletic greatness generally does not go on half-decade hiatus and then return. As a fan, getting what you want after wanting it for so long can often mean a letdown, but that wasn’t the case for record-setting crowds at Innisbrook, television viewers at home, or social media users, who worked themselves into a collective delirium.
Even Tiger's opponents were giddy. "I said a couple times if I don't win this thing I actually want Tiger to win it," Casey said at his winner's press conference. Third-round leader Corey Conners echoed the sentiment, saying that it was "really cool" to hear the Tiger roars rolling out in front of him. Plenty of the game’s younger players have expressed the same emotions, not to mention well wishes from his old frenemy Phil Mickelson.
The chumminess may not last. If Woods starts winning again, stealing money and headlines, the new generation of players will develop their own competitive relationships with him, too. Rather than rooting for him, they'll start wanting to beat him. That's a good thing for all involved.
"We want that chance to battle it out with him on Sunday," Jordan Spieth said.
Spieth, playing alongside Woods in the first two rounds, was outclassed by the 14-time major champion en route to a missed cut. He's not particularly concerned about that missed cut; Spieth's chances aren't fleeting, and if there's a problem with the PGA Tour's endless summer-style year-round schedule, it's a lack of urgency. But there was no such problem in Woods's gallery at Innisbrook, where fans pined for birdies to keep him in contention.
What's next for Woods? We'll see him at Bay Hill, and then two weeks later at the Masters. We might see him at Quail Hollow; we'll certainly see him at the Players in May. We'll get him at U.S. Open June 14-17 and The National two weeks later. Throw in the British Open in mid-July, the WGC-Bridgestone at the beginning of August, and then the PGA Championship the following week.
Playoffs? Ryder Cup? We'll let that shake out in due time. He'll play a light schedule, and golf fans will not suffer from overexposure, but the normalcy of having Tiger back drawing attention to golf tournaments, if "normalcy" can be used in his context, is a positive thing.
So as the cart whisked Woods into the players parking lot Sunday evening, there was no cause for disappointment or despondency. For Woods, it meant the first moment of stillness after seven hours of fans screaming his name. For fans, it meant a chance to go home and reflect on the day's excitement.
As Woods huddled by his car with caddie Joe LaCava and spokesman Glenn Greenspan, a yell broke the silence. "Tiger! You're my hero!" One overzealous supporter with an oversized printout of a fist-pumping Woods was standing on a fold-up stool he'd brought to the course, peering over the fence down at Woods.
Security moved in quickly, but Woods told them to wait. He gave the man an autograph. The man literally jumped for joy.
Tiger's back. Game on.