The rest of the professional golfing world was officially put on notice late Friday morning when Tiger Woods took the solo lead at the Valspar Championship midway through his second round.
By the end of the day, Woods was near the top of the leaderboard and the likes of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson were trunk slamming as they missed the cut. With the missed cut, Spieth joined a group that contains the vast majority of professional golfers to ever play a season on the PGA Tour: missing more cuts than Tiger Woods.
Jordan Spieth, 24, surpassed Tiger Woods, 42, on Friday — in missed cuts. Spieth now has 19 as a pro on the PGA Tour. Woods has 18 overall, 17 on the PGA Tour. The other player in their 3-ball for the first 2 rounds at the Valspar Championship, Henrik… https://t.co/6sfOSBR8uO
— Bob Harig (@BobHarig) March 9, 2018
Spieth chalked his poor week up to sub-par iron play and a continued fight with the flatstick.
After finishing T-20 in each of his first four trips around the Copperhead Course, Spieth missed the cut and only managed three birdies over 36 holes.
“I just got way off in my iron play,” Spieth said. “The putting, not really improving either from last week. That’s how you shoot over par. I’ve been striking the ball well enough that I almost couldn’t shoot over par no matter how I putted, with the way I’ve been striking it. And I just had a really bad ball-striking day yesterday.”
This is Spieth’s second missed cut of the season, as he also made an early exit at the Waste Management Phoenix Open before stringing together three straight top-20 finishes including a T-14 result last week in Mexico.
“I made a lot of progress in the West Coast swing, and then these last two weeks I took a step back, unfortunately, is the feeling right now,” Spieth said.
In addition to some errant iron shots, Spieth has identified an issue in the alignment of his eyes over putts. Traditionally one of the best with putter in hand, he needed 59 putts to complete two rounds and lost ground to the field on the greens.
Spieth will now get a head start on his final off-week before the Masters, with starts at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and Houston Open looming before he returns to Augusta National. Despite the setback this week, he remains optimistic about his chances for a second green jacket.
“I’ve missed the cut twice the week before Augusta and had a chance to win on Sunday,” Spieth said. “I know that it’s close. I’ve been saying that, and I’m not performing on what I’m saying yet, but I really do believe that it’s just something where I have to match my eyes up, and then it clicks.”
As for Woods, he held the lead through most of his back nine, but would retreat to the field with a closing bogey to post 4-under par. Only one player, Corey Conners, remains ahead of Woods heading into the weekend at Innisbrook’s Copperhead course.
There have been a few distinct differences to this latest comeback, not the least of which is that he is unafraid to take on difficult or tricky shots. His speed, ballstriking and short game, to name a few things, have returned to early 2000s levels, which is keeping his wayward driving from demolishing rounds.
However, the strategy required to navigate the Tampa-area course has proven to be beneficial, and each week, his big misses have gotten smaller and smaller.
There’s a distinct calmness about Tiger Woods in the middle of the chaos.
He took the outright lead at the Valspar Championship just after 11:30 a.m. Friday following a birdie at No. 5, his 14th hole of the day, and smoked a 3-wood into the fairway on No. 6. The fans were going absolutely nuts because at that moment, on a picturesque, sunny morning along Florida’s West coast, Woods was finally back on top.
He strolled down the sixth fairway, hands tucked into the pockets of his light gray Nike pants, as if everything was totally normal.
This was sort of normal because Woods has led more than 100 tournaments and won 79 of them, but it was also decidedly abnormal because Woods was supposed to ease into this comeback and wasn’t even sure he’d play competitive golf again as recently as five months ago.
“Could I have envisioned myself being here? No,” Woods said.
Woods shot 3-under 68 in Round 2 and enters the weekend two shots behind leader Corey Conners (6 under), tied for second with Paul Casey, Brandt Snedeker, Ryan Palmer and Kelly Kraft at 4 under. Justin Rose, Webb Simpson, Sean O’Hair, Jason Kokrak and Keegan Bradley are T-7 at 3 under.
Woods and Snedeker will tee off at 1:45 p.m. ET Saturday in the penultimate pairing, with Conners and Casey to follow at 1:55 p.m.
Woods has seen it all, of course, and he stayed extremely patient Friday, often backing off shots after approach to check the wind again or change clubs. The fans were relentless, packed seven to eight rows deep in spots, and playing partners Henrik Stenson and Jordan Spieth were imploding. But Woods remained calm as he paced the grounds, purpose behind every movement.
Woods made his only bogey of the day at No. 9 and sunk his most important putt at No. 7, rolling in a 12-footer to save par and keep the momentum going with two holes to play.
“I’m up there,” Woods said. “I don’t think this will be leading but at least I’m there with a chance going into the weekend. Today was a good day.”
It wasn’t that hard to see a round like this coming, his lowest in 12 PGA Tour starts so far this year. The ballstriking was rock solid all week during his T-12 finish at the Honda Classic two weeks ago, his speed on and around the greens was consistently on point and he wasn’t sending drives into adjacent fairways anymore.
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