PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- In the end, he came up short. Two-and-a-half feet short, to be exact. But who could have envisioned Tiger Woods coming into the 72nd hole of a golf tournament at this point in his comeback with a chance to win the Valspar Championship?
Woods' birdie putt on the 18th hole from nearly 40 feet stopped short -- a theme throughout the day -- and left him a stroke shy of Englishman Paul Casey, who fired a final-round 65 on the Copperhead course at the Innisbrook Resort to claim his second PGA Tour title in addition to 13 European Tour wins.
Casey sat in the clubhouse while Woods and Patrick Reed still had a chance to tie him, and it was Reed who faltered with a bogey at the last hole while Woods could not muster the birdie he needed.
"I was close," Woods said after a final-round 70 left him in a tie for second, his best finish since he tied for 10th at the 2015 Wyndham Championship. "I had a chance today. Unfortunately I just didn't quite feel as sharp as I needed to with my irons, played a little conservative because of it.
"I just needed to handle the par-5s a little better. Missed a short one there on 4 for par. Should have two-putted 14. I know that was a long putt, but I was trying to leave it below the hole. I overdid it. I missed it."
Woods said there were several instances of opportunities that he would lament, but he didn't appear to be beating himself up, either.
Unlike the days when Woods, 42, expected to win from such a position, he is keenly aware of what he has overcome in a short time. This is just his fourth official tournament since undergoing a fourth back surgery, a spinal fusion, that occurred 11 months ago. An 80th PGA Tour win did not seem possible, certainly not now.
Just six months ago, he was very much unsure of his golf future. Today he feels good enough to hit all the shots, with power, and to play four tournaments in five weeks. He is scheduled to tee it up again this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has eight victories, the last in 2013.
"He was a little off on the speed of the greens, I thought," said Woods' caddie, Joe LaCava. "He didn't hit it quite as good, not as close and didn't have as many chances. For some, it was there to be had, but he just didn't have as many birdie chances. Still, as I said yesterday, win or 15th, this was a great week for him. So many positives from coming here."
Woods was the only player in the field to break par in every round, shooting scores of 70-68-67-70 to finish at 9 under par. It was the closest he came to winning since he tied for second at the 2013 Barclays, the first FedEx Cup playoff event.
He has not played in that season-ending playoff series since, and for his efforts this week, the 245 points he earned moved him to 43rd in the standings. Woods also has moved to 149th in the Official World Golf Ranking, up from 388. (He won $572,000 in prize money.)
"I felt very comfortable," he said. "As I told you guys yesterday, I've been here before a few times. So I felt very comfortable. My game was quite solid this entire week. As a whole, I felt very good about what I did."
He just didn't do enough Sunday. With huge galleries supporting and encouraging him throughout the week, Woods managed just two birdies and a bogey. Starting the day 1 stroke behind third-round leader Corey Conners (who shot 77 and tied for 16th), Woods made a two-putt birdie on the first hole and then didn't make another until draining a 45-footer at the par-3 17th to give himself a chance.
Along the way, he bogeyed the par-4 fourth, missing a chip shot from just in front of the green that left him a 5-footer. He made a 10-foot par putt at the sixth but had chances at the 13th and 14th holes that did not drop, the latter a 3-putt from the front of the par-5 green. He needed 32 putts after hitting 14 of 18 greens.
For the week, Woods hit 31 of 52 fairways to tie for 16th in the field; he hit 48 of 72 greens in regulation and was eighth in the field in strokes gained -- approach shots; he took 111 putts and was 39th in strokes gained putting -- including 58th on Sunday.
But to nitpick his statistics is missing the overall picture.
"I've been watching him swing, and he's really got it in good positions," said Ernie Els, the Hall of Famer who has been friend and rival to Woods for 20-plus years. "He's putting well, his short game looks really sharp and he's got energy. He's got the right energy.
"This time he's physically fine and he's actually swinging the club as good as I've seen him since back in the day."
For much of the week, it was like old times for Woods, the winner of 14 major championships.
And it felt like it always did as he came up the 18th hole, 185 yards away, needing a birdie to tie Casey. The 7-iron he hit came up a little short, leaving an unlikely birdie putt that also finished short.
Woods hit a 2-iron off the tee instead of going with a driver or a 3-wood and said he did not want to bring the right rough into play, and figured he was better off having a long shot from the fairway.
"If I'm going to squeeze it in, I want to cut it," he said. "I didn't feel comfortable with that. If anything, that 2-iron [off the tee] I could have hit it flatter and hotter, but, hey, I'm in the fairway. I've got a shot at this thing."
That alone is a reason for Woods to celebrate.