Tiger Woods contending only six months after fearing career over

PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- For the better part of an hour Friday, Tiger Woods' name graced the top of a golf tournament leaderboard. Alone. All by himself.

Facing a 5-footer on the fifth hole (his 14th of the day), Woods rolled in for a birdie to take the outright lead in the Valspar Championship.

The gallery swarmed around him, following him from hole to hole.

It's how he always used to be, and how many never expected to see him again.

And no matter how this event ends for him, Woods leading a golf tournament just four events and 12 rounds into a never-assured comeback is a surprise, even for him. He literally had no idea he led the tournament for a stretch Friday, saying that every time he looked at one of the electronic scoreboards, it was showing information about one of his playing partners.

"Could I have envisioned myself being here? No," he said after a 3-under-par 68 had him tied for the lead with Paul Casey, Brandt Snedeker, Ryan Palmer and Corey Conners when he completed play. "My surgeon hadn't told me I was fused. If I'm not fused, this is a totally different game. Am I going to feel what I did for the last four, five years? Or am I going to be like this?"

"Like this" is signs of the previous version of Tiger Woods. The powerful tee shots. The sharp short game. The clutch putting.

All of that had been missing for most of the past four years as Woods underwent three microdiscectomy procedures to deal with a disk issue in his lower back and finally a spinal fusion on April 19 that has eliminated the nerve pain he experienced but left him unable to swing a club for six months.

And while Woods gave an encouraging report about his future health last September when he served as an assistant for the U.S. Presidents Cup team, he also cautioned he had no idea if he could play golf, let alone compete at the highest level. "Definitely," Woods said then. "I don't know what my future holds for me."

"I hadn't done anything golf-wise [at that point at the Presidents Cup]," he added Friday. "Did I feel any pain? No. I hit a couple of putts here and there and that is not really doing much."

Since then, Woods has played 16 rounds of competitive golf, including four in the Bahamas at the unofficial World Golf Challenge. Initially there was fear he might not break 80 for a time, but the highest score he has shot so far is the 76 in the second round of the Genesis Open, where he missed the cut three weeks ago.

He has shot five rounds in the 60s, three of them in the Bahamas, but has managed to stay around par for all but two rounds.

When making the cut was a reasonable goal at the Farmers Insurance Open, he tied for 23rd. He regressed at Riviera a bit, the eight-hole stretch to end the second round a matter of not trusting his swing and being unable to save himself with his short game.

The Honda Classic seemed a risk, with all the water and sand dotting the PGA National course, but Woods saw himself as a weekend contender, although he missed a playoff by eight strokes and ended up finishing 12th.

The decision to add the Valspar at the last minute has proved to be beneficial, the extra rounds of competition he is seeking turning into a chance to be in contention. He beat Jordan Spieth by nine shots and Henrik Stenson by 10 through 36 holes -- and those two guys are the last two Open champions.

Woods ended Friday in a five-way tie for second, two strokes behind Conners.

"I don't see it going backward from here," said Snedeker, who played a round with Woods at Torrey Pines and twice at the Honda Classic. "The more time he has, he's going to feel better. There have been a lot of positives."

Perhaps the biggest is health. It all started there for Woods, who clearly feels better than he has in years. The nerve pain is gone, and it has allowed him to swing freely and aggressively.

Friday morning brought the coldest temperatures he's had to face, certainly not good for a bad back. With a 7:56 a.m. tee time, Woods was up several hours ahead of it, going through his regimen for getting ready to play a tournament round. He arrived approximately an hour before his tee time, warming up in near darkness -- and did not fare so well.

"I was freezing out there," he said. "I was just trying to stay warm. I was hitting it all over the place."

A few cringe-worthy moments have occurred in each tournament, including Thursday's brush with a pine tree -- Woods slammed his forearm into the tree trunk -- and an instance on Friday when he aggressively went after a shot out of the rough on the 18th hole.

The Tiger of the past few years simply could not do that. His body would not allow it. The signs of distress were often there, no more so than the hobbling gait last February in Dubai, where he shot a birdie-less 77 and withdrew the next day.

Thinking of that image of Woods and to now see him near the lead of a golf tournament just 13 months later is remarkable.

"I am not surprised one bit," said Sean Foley, Woods' former coach, who worked with the 14-time major champion from 2010 through 2014. "After the Hero, I was very optimistic. Very glad for him. He is Tiger Woods, so good play is never surprising."

Woods was being far more pragmatic Friday, expecting to no longer be in the lead when the day concluded, noting that 36 holes still remained, commenting on the difficulty of the Copperhead course and changing weekend conditions.

"I keep getting a little bit better here and there, making these little subtle tweaks and I've done that from tournament to tournament,'' he said. "I need to get a little bit more tournament time, and I think I've done that and I'm starting to get a better feel for it.

"I'm hitting the shots. I don't have a problem posting scores -- just trying to figure out how to play golf again.''

It seemed he did a pretty good job of it on Friday, leading by himself for a time and making many wonder how it is even possible.