PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Tiger Woods has won five PGA Tour events that he played for the first time.
Two of them no longer exist (Disney and BellSouth Classic in Atlanta). One of them he stopped playing 12 years ago (Tournament of Champions). He has been ineligible for another (World Golf Championship now in Mexico) the last four years.
The other is Las Vegas .
The next opportunity, which is rare in his predictable schedule, starts Thursday at the Valspar Championship.
That’s not to say Woods has never competed on the Copperhead course at Innisbrook. He played in 1996, but he had some help. It was the old JC Penney Mixed Team Classic. His partner was Kelli Kuehne, another amateur stalwart dressed up in the Nike swoosh whose career never got going.
What is Woods doing in the Tampa Bay area?
He wants to get his game ready for the Masters, and without being eligible for the two World Golf Championships in the spring, he needs places to play.
Woods has captivated golf audiences more than ever during his return from a fourth back surgery. He tied for 23rd at Torrey Pines (seven shots out of the lead) and finished 12th in the Honda Classic (eight shots behind the winner. In between, he missed the cut at Riviera.
“I only got two rounds in LA. I missed the cut there,” Woods said. “I felt really strong afterward. After playing Honda and really feeling good about it, I wanted to push myself in my practice sessions, which I did, pushed myself in the gym a little bit. And I can handle two weeks in a row.”
He also is playing Bay Hill next week, meaning four tournaments in five weeks, and then the Masters.
Innisbrook is not the typical Florida golf course. It has elevation, such as the par-5 fifth hole where the shot is blind if players go for the green in two. Water comes into play on only seven holes, none of the last two.
That’s what has attracted so many top players over the years. Ernie Els once considered it the best tournament course in Florida.
Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia have played over the years and returned for this one. Among the newcomers is Rory McIlroy, which gave the Valspar Championship a real shot in the arm when he announced he was going to play. And that was before Woods and Jordan Spieth signed up.
“It’s a great test,” Woods said. “With this wind blowing, it’s going to put a premium on really hitting it flush.”
Joining him for the opening two rounds are Spieth and Henrik Stenson, the last two British Open champions. Both have a lower scoring average than Woods when they have played together on the PGA Tour, and both have clear memories.
“It was a big thing to play with him,” Stenson said.
Stenson first played with Woods in the final round of the American Express Championship in 2005. Woods closed a 67 and wound up beating John Daly in a playoff. Stenson shot 68 and finished two shots behind.
“It was no point trying to get the crowd to stand off,” Stenson said. “He hit the shot, everyone is walking. You just got to deal with it.”
Spieth played with Woods for the first time at Torrey Pines in 2014. On the eve of the tournaments, Woods received his trophy for PGA Tour player of the year, and Spieth received his as PGA Tour rookie of the year.
Spieth shot 63, Woods shot 71.
In the seven times they have played together, Woods has never posted a lower score than Spieth. Then again, that’s about the time his injuries began to kick in. Spieth saw the other version of Woods about three months earlier.
Spieth was picked for the Presidents Cup team in 2013 at Muirfield Village when he was 20. He played a practice round with Woods, a friendly game of Spieth and Steve Stricker against Woods and Matt Kuchar.
“We were trying to get off quickly in front of the groups, and I remember being unbelievably nervous on that shot, and for most of the shots I hit in the round — even though it’s a practice round, and he was my teammate,” Spieth said. “They went eagle-birdie-birdie or something like that to start. I thought, ‘Man, this must be what it’s been like for the last 20 years for guys.'”
Spieth showed a little of his magic himself that day. He made a hole-in-one on the 12th hole.
The last time they played was at the Phoenix Open in 2015, when Woods was a mess with his short game . Spieth shot 68 in the second round to get into weekend condition. Woods shot 82 and missed the cut.
But this is a different Tiger.
“I haven’t seen a whole lot of him the last few years since he’s been hurt and trying to come back,” Spieth said. “But we all hope for that Sunday afternoon pairing alongside all us young guys. We want that chance to be able to battle it out with him on Sunday. I know he wants that, too, to show us what he’s done to other people.
“Even if it’s not 2000 Tiger, it’s still Tiger on a Sunday,” he said. “And that’s something that would be an experience we haven’t had before.”
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(Jim Damaske/Tampa Bay Times via AP)