Valspar Championship: Tiger Woods fires his best round of 2018 with 3-under effort

At 4 under, Tiger Woods co-led the Valspar Championship at the time his second round ended. I repeat, it’s 2018, Woods is four tournaments into his most recent comeback and he led for much of the morning in Palm Harbor, Florida, on Friday during Round 2. It remains to be seen whether his 4-under 138 mark following a 70-68 start will hold up as the co-lead all day, but for now Woods will be chased on the weekend by almost everybody else in the field.

Friday’s 68 started with a 2-under 33 on the back nine (Woods started on the 10th hole), but it really got going on the front nine (Woods’ final nine holes of the day). Woods made a 12-foot birdie on the par-4 2nd hole to grab a share of the lead with Jimmy Walker and Corey Conners, and he made a 5-foot birdie on the par-5 5th to put his name atop the leaderboard alone.

Woods was in control throughout as he made four birdies and one bogey on his final hole of the day (he also had a tremendous save on the par-4 7th). He had very few stressful holes (more on that in a minute), and despite a few wayward drives, the entire thing felt downright breezy. The lead Woods held was his first at any point since he shared the lead at the 2015 Wyndham Championship (where he also shared it after 36 holes).

The afternoon wave will have a chance to catch him, but for now Woods is (I cannot believe I’m writing this) the guy to beat at Innisbrook and the 2018 Valspar Championship.

Here are five thoughts on Woods’ second round.

1. Improved proximity: Woods’ proximity to the hole in Round 1 was a pretty tepid 44 feet. He improved on that by nearly 10 feet and ended the day with an average distance to the hole on his approach shots of 34 feet, 7 inches. That included six holes in which he had less than 15 feet for birdie. He’s also been making those putts when he has them.

A lot of this proximity improvement is because he was in Position A off the tee, and a lot of that is because he hit almost exclusively 2-irons and 3-woods. I should probably remind you that this course is tough when it comes to finding greens, much less giving yourself looks at birdie, and Woods is making it look meek. He hit 11-of-18 greens in regulation and put it close when he found them.

2. Short, taut swing: I don’t fancy myself the second coming of Peter Kostis, but I’ve been amazed at the improvement of Woods’ swing even from his first start of the year at the end of January. It looks short, tight and like he’s able to do whatever he wants with the ball. Some of his stinger shots off the tee made my knees weak, and he looked like he had it on a string on the par 3s. This is completely anecdotal and a result of my amateur eyes breaking down a complex move, but he could not have looked better on Friday.

3. Confidence in wedges: I don’t feel this way about every part of Woods’ game right now, but when he has a wedge in his hand from 75-150 yards, I always feel like he’s going to put it inside 12 feet. I don’t think this because he’s Tiger Woods, either. That he gets every wedge that close is empirically untrue, but given how much Tiger I’ve watched in the last year, it’s sort of amazing that Woods has come as far as he has. 

4. Easy pars: When Woods made the cut and finished top 25 at the Farmers Insurance Open back in January, it was about as stressful as golf gets. Par savers from 15 feet and monster birdies coming down the stretch on Friday to get to the weekend. 

This round was the opposite of that (and this week has largely been the opposite of it overall). Woods’ total feet of par putts made was 29 feet on 13 putts (he missed a six-footer for par at the final hole). That’s just over two feet per hole. Easy does it. 

“Obviously this is a very difficult golf course,” Woods said. “The margin is very small so I enjoy that aspect where par is a reward. I don’t feel like I’m behind if I make four pars in a row. You make a couple birdies here you shoot up the board. I like that kind of golf. I like that kind of test.”

Woods has been in complete control of his short game (more on that just below), and it has shown in how many times he’s had easy tap-ins to end holes. Of that 29 feet, nearly 12 of it came from this par save on the par-4 7th, which kept Woods’ round rolling right along. 

Of all his shots on Friday, you know that one was the one that jacked him up the most.

5. Shot(s) of the day: Woods had a pair of bunker shots on the front nine that were truly flabbergasting. He blasted one from an impossible spot on the par-4 4th hole from 53 feet to four feet for par. Then he hit one on the par-5 5th from 36 feet to five feet for birdie. Both were tremendous. I don’t know that there is one specific thing that will mark Woods truly being “back” (whatever that means), but his bunker play has been a nice surprise this week and a sign that his game is rounding out for the first major of the year.

So now Woods has a genuine chance to do something he hasn’t done in nearly five years: win a golf tournament. Regardless, with one eye on Augusta, Woods’ start to 2018 has officially been a success. We’ve talked more about proximity to the hole than we have proximity to the operating room, and Woods has hit every shot in the book through 12 rounds of the year. If he can keep pace with himself in Rounds 3 and 4 — and I have no reason to think he won’t be able to — we could be talking about Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson winning in back to back weeks leading up to the 2018 Masters.