PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Tiger Woods put his name on the leaderboard again, and this time it stayed there.
Woods looked sharper as the gallery got louder. He made four birdies, got a few good bounces and kept a clean card at Innisbrook until the last hole for a 3-under 68 that gave him a share of the early lead Friday at the Valspar Championship.
Paul Casey and Brandt Snedeker also had 68s, while Ryan Palmer had a 66 to share the lead at 4-under 138.
“I don’t think this will be leading, but at least I’m there with a chance going into the weekend,” Woods said. “Today was a good day.”
Masters champion Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy were among those playing in the afternoon.
Woods also got his name high on the leaderboard when he first returned from his fourth back surgery in the Bahamas, an unofficial event with an 18-man field before as sparse of a gallery as will ever see him play. That didn’t last long.
This looked as though it could.
Woods has been slowed my mistakes, some leading to big numbers the last time he played at the Honda Classic. The second round at Innisbrook was all about control of his shots that rarely put him out of position off the tee and especially on the green, where he could attack putts from below the hole.
He took the lead with a drive that was heading left, struck a cart path and caromed back into the fairway on his 14th hole, the par-5 fifth. That set up a long iron into the front right bunker, and a delicate shot from the sand to about 5 feet for his fourth birdie of the round.
He gained even more momentum with a 12-foot par putt from the collar of the fringe at No. 7, and Woods was heading toward a bogey-free round until his wedge on the par-5 ninth rode the shifting wind to the right and into the gallery, his ball on a woman’s bag. After getting a drop, his chip came out too strong and hit the flag, leaving it only 6 feet away. He missed the putt and didn’t seem all that bothered.
Just over five months ago, Woods still didn’t have the clearance to begin hitting full shots, much less playing without restrictions. In his fourth PGA Tour event in seven weeks, he looks like a contender.
“I’ve come a long way in that span of time,” Woods said.
What’s changed is the energy of the gallery, enormous for the Valspar Championship, all of them looking for any reason to cheer.
“The roars are a little louder, and there’s certainly an energy about the gallery that you don’t have anywhere else,” Jordan Spieth said.
Spieth missed the cut for the second time this year. He is still trying to rediscover his putting touch, and his iron game left him in the opening round of 76. He didn’t fare much better on Friday with two birdies, two bogeys, a 71 and a phone call to get back to Dallas sooner than he wanted.
Henrik Stenson, the other major champion in the group, had another 74 and missed the cut.
“I’ve played with Tiger many times. It’s nothing new,” Spieth said. “It kind of feels like you’re playing in a major championship in a normal round, which if anything should bring out better golf for me. I just got way off on my iron play, with putting not improving either. That’s how you shoot over par.”
Casey holed a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th for his 68, putting him in good shape going into the weekend. Casey has gone nearly four years since his last victory.
He was on the opposite side of the course as Woods, though he could hear him.
“Feels like the old days,” Casey said.
Snedeker holed a 35-foot birdie putt on the par-3 13th and took care the par 5s on the front nine for his 68. Sean O’Hair, a past winner at Innisbrook who lost in a playoff to Spieth here in 2015, had a 68 and was at 3-under 139. Former PGA champion Jimmy Walker reached 6 under with four birdies on his first five holes, only to lose ground the rest of the way for a 71. He was at 2-under 140.
Woods never really saw his name on the board. Whenever he glanced at the video board, it was showing Spieth or Stenson putting and their statistics. But he could sense from the crowd that everything was going his way. These last two days have given his comeback some momentum.
“To play myself into contention this early into it was nice, and on top of that, to build on what I did a week ago,” he said, referring to the Honda Classic when he was on the fringe of contention going to the back nine. “I feel comfortable out there.”
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