MIAMI • Tiger Woods took his cap off on the 18th green to shake his playing partner's hand, and suddenly the fantasy was over.
High above the timeless, trademark smile, his hair came spilling out in wild, ancient clumps, their dwindling territory no match for the advancing bald spots in between.
Our eyes could no longer deceive us. This was not 1997, 2002, 2008 or even 2013. Time had not stopped, or heaven forbid, gone in reverse.
But it was precisely Woods' age, 42, and the almost five years since his last PGA Tour win in the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone that made Saturday's spectacle in the third round of the Valspar Championship so enticing and potentially monumental for the sport.
On a cool, grey afternoon, on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Golf Resort where he had not played in 22 years, in a tournament he had never before graced, Woods shot a four-under 67 and whipped a teeming crowd into a frenzy.
Healthy of body and mind again after a long road back, the former world No. 1 sits at eight-under 205, one shot off the lead held by Canadian rookie Corey Conners (68), and tied with Tour veterans Justin Rose (66) and Brandt Snedeker (67).
"I have a shot to win (on Sunday)," he said after a round of five birdies and one bogey.
"I'm going to try to beat all these guys... I've been in this position many times. I've won my share of events. I know what it's like. I just need to execute."
It was not so long ago that it would have seemed impossible: Woods, the greatest golfer of his generation, a 79-time PGA Tour winner and 14-time Major champion, written off countless times as someone who will never again be a competitive force, suddenly sitting one shot off the lead heading into a final round, and 24 days before the start of the Masters, which he has won four times.
His peers were left in no doubt that he was back in the mix.
"I can confirm he's back," Snedeker, Woods' playing partner on Saturday, said.
It is difficult to overstate the depths from which Woods has recently climbed, from spinal fusion surgery to the driving under the influence arrest last year, when he was found to have had five different prescription drugs in his system.
When asked if he missed this feeling during his latest absence from the game, he said: "No. I was living minute to minute. You have no idea how hard it was.
"This is uncharted territory. No one has ever had a lower lumbar fusion where I had it and come out here and played.
"I didn't want to go there. That was a last-case resort and ended up being the only option I had left. We exhausted all the non-surgical options," he added.
But over 54 remarkable holes at Valspar, with expectations starting low and swelling higher, Woods has proven he can still play. All that is left is to find out if he can still win.
REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST