'Tiger Woods is surpassing expectations, though killer instinct is still missing'

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Highlights: Simpson holds off Woods to win Players

Tiger Woods provided more evidence he is ready to return to the winner's circle with his stirring weekend at the Players Championship.

TPC Sawgrass belonged to champion Webb Simpson, who brilliantly controlled this prestigious tournament, but it was Woods who dominated most conversations in the aftermath.

Having made the cut on the mark at one under par, the 42-year-old former world number one had weekend rounds of 65 and 69 to climb into a share of 11th place.

"What I saw this weekend makes me excited. It could be incredibly close," said former Open champion David Duval.

Jordan Spieth, Woods' playing partner in the final round, said: "He'll win sometime soon enough. He's certainly playing well enough to do so."

And having emerged from last year's career-saving back fusion operation, the man himself is clearly imbued with regenerated confidence.

"There's no way I would have predicted I would be at this point at the beginning of the year," Woods said.

"The way I was just coming back and just trying to get a feel for it and then hopefully have a schedule. I didn't know. But now I feel like I've got my playing feels and I'm playing tournament golf and I've got it. I'm not that far off winning golf tournaments."

It certainly looked that way during much of the weekend at the Players Championship, a tournament featuring the top 50 in the world with the exception of the injured Paul Casey.

Woods started this year ranked 656th in the world. He is now up to 80th, with a stated aim of making it to the last World Golf Championships event at Firestone in August.

"One of my goals is to get into Akron, one last time, before we leave there," he said.

"I've won there eight times and I would like to get there with one more chance. But I've got to do some work between now and then, hopefully put together one good event."

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods shot six birdies in the final round of the Players Championship

So how likely is a Woods victory in the near future?

The power and fitness are there for all to see; on Sunday he fired an imperious tee shot 354 yards on the treacherous 14th at Sawgrass.

But it is what happened immediately afterwards that leaves cause for concern. It was time to push, to apply one last burst of pressure on runaway leader Simpson.

Woods had 110 yards to the pin, he belted a 60 degree wedge, only to see the ball spin back off the front of the green. He couldn't get up and down and the bogey eliminated any chance he might have had.

In his pomp, Woods' competitive instincts would have ensured no such inaccuracy would creep into his game at such a vital moment. It was that mental strength that separated the 14-time major champion from the rest.

The killer instinct is still missing, just as it was in the Valspar Championship in early March, when he was runner-up to Casey. Woods chose a long iron off the 72nd tee when surely it was time to go for broke with the driver.

But, make no mistake, he is surpassing all expectations and is in good shape to be contending for titles through the summer months.

Last Saturday, he was eight under for his first 12 holes. On the Sunday, he covered the same stretch in six under. It was scintillating golf and he attracted galleries standing eight deep all around every hole he played.

Duval told Golf Channel viewers in the United States: "We've all questioned what is the top for him in this comeback? What can his body do, what can his new golf game do?

"Having had the opportunity to speak to him about it, we were all in a hurry to judge what was going on. I sat up here and said let's give him the starts, let's give him the summer, let's give him the year, let's see if he can gain some of the freedom he needs.

"Well, it looked to me this week that he regained that freedom. I watched the club pass the body through the downswing, watched him maintain his spine angle through that process.

"He hit some monster tee shots, incredible iron shots and the freedom with which he did that we just hadn't seen."

Duval, a former world number one who was Woods' first genuine rival in the pro ranks, believes the rejuvenated American has to maintain a busy playing schedule.

"The question is when is he going to play again? I hope he plays sooner rather than later," Duval said.

"I hope he doesn't go home and just hit golf balls. I want to see him play rounds of golf under tournament conditions and expose himself exactly like he did this weekend.

"Because he did that and he performed. There were a few hiccups but that's the game of golf."

Woods has yet to tell us when he will next be competing, but Jack Nicklaus' Memorial event in Dublin, Ohio - starting on 31 May - would seem the logical choice in the build-up to next month's US Open.

Wherever he shows up, Woods will generate a big buzz. We could feel it at the Players Championship, and what he did there will only feed a growing sense of anticipation across the golfing world.