Tiger Takes Tampa: Woods has put a charge into Innisbrook and the tournament is still two days away

March 7, 2018

PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Tuesdays are relatively quiet on Tour. Tucked safely between travel Monday and Pro-Am Wednesday, they’re often the best and calmest time to practice, before any shot that counts has been struck. Urgency is invisible this time of week.

At the Honda Classic, Tiger Woods skipped Tuesday altogether, figuring a Wednesday refresher would suffice. Many fans in attendance at Tuesday’s Valspar Championship practice round expected this week might be the same.

Just a week ago, Tampa-area fans would have been surprised to hear that Woods would be in attendance at all. The Honda Classic’s Palm Beach Gardens home puts it in the Hamptons of Florida, the moneyed retreat of Tour stars and New York elite. By contrast, the Valspar Championship is just across the state but a world away, in Florida’s earnest west coast. Innisbrook is pure, like all Tour courses, and the Valspar has produced memorable winners, most notably Jordan Spieth in 2015. But this is never a stop that has attracted golf’s elite.

Tuesday was a sunny day in the neighborhood at Innisbrook, a gated community with four courses, three of which will be open to public play this weekend. Just down the street from the PGA Tour’s setup, an older man hit range balls with his granddaughters. Signs with previous winners — Hadwin, Schwartzel, Spieth, Senden — flanked the streets, but the exciting commitments of 2018 (Rory! Sergio! Adam Scott! And of course, Tiger Woods) weren’t trumpeted about.

There were top pros abound in the practice area. Defending champion Adam Hadwin was messing around near the chipping green, working on flop shots from downhill lies in the rough. He shanked one that scampered across the green and past the unsuspecting ankles of another caddie. He grinned. “Sorry,” Hadwin called over. “Didn’t even see you there — that could have been dangerous.”

The caddie didn’t care; on Tuesdays, why bother?

But then word spread: Tiger was on property, touching down for a Tuesday afternoon jaunt ’round the front nine. All of a sudden, elbow room at the edge of the chipping green got tight, only exacerbated by Spieth’s presence. The tenor of the crowd changed: Applause. Murmurs. Shrieks, even.

After his warmup, Woods teed it up with a group of the game’s elder statesmen: He and Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk took on Davis Love III and Steve Stricker. Spectators from across the course seemed to sense his presence and were drawn to it like bugs to light; by the group’s third hole some 80 percent of the fans on property were in tow. Woods didn’t seem to remember all that much about the course — understandable after 22 years away — and relied on LaCava and his yardage book with overall success.

“Where am I supposed to go?” he asked LaCava on the par-5 5th. “None of my numbers really fit here.” He settled on driver, which LaCava told him to hit down the left. Woods hit it down the right.

The group enjoyed each other’s company, and although none seemed overly invested in the results of the match, Woods in particular was engaged in every shot. He played fairly well, birdieing the first and mixing in seven pars along with one bogey the rest of the front side, providing few tangible moments to thrill the crowd but doing so anyway, without even trying.

“Thanks for coming to Tampa, Tiger!” one woman yelled, and others around her echoed the sentiment.

As tournament director Tracy West pointed out last week, this isn’t the Phoenix Open, and these fans wouldn’t have earned a single Justin Thomas finger-wag. They were appreciative and excited, genuinely so, eager for the Tiger Show to have touched down at this event for the first time. There were no screams, because this was a mellow crowd trying to play it cool, and because it was Tuesday, and because they appeared awed by the spectacle.

Woods’s presence may be closer to a vacuum than a magnet. As the day’s featured pairing approached the 8th green, a twosome looked on from the nearby 11th tee: Adam Scott and Justin Rose. As Furyk lined up a putt, Rose seemed to smile at the size of the gallery; several hundred were already battling for position on the next tee. Scott hit driver down the middle and the pair strode away, two of the world’s most famous golfers. Not a single fan was on the hole.

Rose shot me a glance as he walked away; most Tour players still notice when they’re being watched. Tiger assumes it at all times. He messed around greenside sampling a mix of low runners and high, soft flops on the firm surfaces.

“Best I’ve seen the course in years,” one spectator, an Innisbrook member, told his friend. “The greens especially. Thank God we got ’em ready for him.”