MIAMI • You can practise all you want in solitude, hit thousands of balls into the dying sunset, chip and putt for hours in shorts and flip-flops in your back yard.
You can play casual rounds with your buddies. You can even enter tournaments when you are finally ready, and play lousy in some, and well in others, leaving behind an incomplete picture of where your game stands.
But nothing can simulate the singular energy and pressure of being in the hunt late on a Sunday afternoon in March.
As Tiger Woods headed away from the Gulf of Mexico early in the evening, the message he left behind was resounding: At age 42, he can clearly still play.
After five years in the wilderness, he can still contend. And he is dead certain, but for the whims and randomness of a few blades of grass across the expanse of Innisbrook Golf Resort, he can still win.
That he failed to do so, falling a stroke shy in the final round of the Valspar Championship - which England's Paul Casey won after a six-under 65, and a 72-hole total of 10-under 274 - was ultimately less important than the fact that, by all appearances and evidence, the former world No. 1 still can.
Five years since the last of his 79 wins, and 10 since the last of his 14 Majors, it is no longer impossible to imagine those numbers climbing in the future.
ROOTING FOR TIGER
I beat Tiger. It's the first time in my career I could say that. It was awesome.
PAUL CASEY, Valspar Championship winner, on his one-shot win over Tiger Woods and Patrick Reed.
OLD IS GOLD
40 the new 20-something?! Phil Mickelson, 47, ends drought of 4+ yrs & now well done, hearty congrats @Paul_Casey, 40, on 1st @PGATOUR win since 2009. Fantastic 65 w/ just 21 putts at @ValsparChamp! And well done @TigerWoods! You're getting there my friend. Sure it won't be long!
JACK NICKLAUS, 18-time Major champion, hailing golf's rejuvenated veterans.
Pumped for golf today.... @TigerWoods 1 shot back and in the Sunday red!
MICHAEL PHELPS, American swimming legend, can hardly contain his excitement.
NORMAL SERVICE PLEASE
Let's go @TigerWoods !! Help us put the world back on it's (sic) correct axis.
NICK CARTER, of the Backstreet Boys, is eagerly expecting the return of Woods' world-beating abilities.
"It was a very good week. I've got a little bit better since the last time I played a couple of weeks ago," said Woods, who fired a 70 to share second with Patrick Reed on 275.
"I keep getting just a little better and a little sharper. It (being in contention) felt very comfortable. I remember it and on top of that my game's sharp, so it was a good day."
With the first round of the Masters just about three weeks away, the notion of Woods being indisputably back as a Major-championship force - improbable as it would have seemed a few years or even a few months ago, as he was recovering from the last of his four back surgeries - feels like a transformative moment for a sport he once dominated and lifted to unprecedented heights.
Betrayed all day by iron play that was just slightly less than sharp, and a putter that constantly scared the cup but could never split it, Woods nonetheless hung around near the top of the leaderboard all day, and finally drained a 44-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole to give himself a chance on the tournament's final hole.
Casey, 40, was already in the clubhouse, and Reed, playing in the group just ahead of Woods, could have forced a play-off with a closing par, but bogeyed instead to fall a shot back.
Woods, meanwhile, took the conservative route off the 18th tee, hitting a two-iron down the middle, then a seven-iron to the front of the green.
As a massive gallery - energised by Woods' mere presence in a tournament he had never played, then whipped to the point of frenzy by his late charge - pressed in around the green, he studied his long birdie putt from all angles, took his putter back, and unforgivably left it nearly three feet short.
"The one thing you can't do is leave it short," the American said with visible regret.
Just after their rounds, Woods crossed paths with Casey outside the scorer's tent and congratulated the latter on his first win on the PGA Tour since 2009 and his first anywhere since 2014. "It's the only time he's congratulated me," Casey said. "Usually it's the other way around."