|Tiger Woods poses with the trophy on the 18th green after winning the AT&T National golf tournament at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., Sunday, July 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)|
Tiger Woods takes another step toward the top
BETHESDA, Md.—The images of Tiger Woods, dressed in his red shirt and raising both arms on the 18th green after another victory, are no longer highlights from years gone by.
When he outlasted Bo Van Pelt in a tense duel on the back-nine Sunday at Congressional, Woods won for third time in his last seven tournaments dating to the late March. He still hasn't figured out the majors this year, though he has two more remaining.
And while winning the AT&T National kept him at No. 4 in the world, he is starting to be looked upon the way he once was.
"I think he's the only guy to win three tournaments on tour this year, is that correct?" Van Pelt said. "On three different courses. And he was leading the U.S. Open after two days. So I'd say that he's playing the best golf in the world right now."
Woods closed with a 2-under 69, making only one bogey in his final 44 holes on a course that was tougher than it was for the U.S. Open last year. Van Pelt had him in trouble late in the round, but only briefly, and Woods effectively pulled away on the last two holes by letting his opponents get the bad breaks and make the bogeys.
He now was 74 wins on the PGA Tour, moving past Jack Nicklaus into second place, leaving him eight wins away from the record held by Sam Snead. Perhaps it's only fitting that Woods now heads to The Greenbrier Classic, where Snead was the first head professional.
Woods at least moved to No. 1 in two other categories -- the PGA Tour money list and the
At this rate, Woods is more likely to get to Snead's record of 82 tour wins than the record that means the most to him -- the 18 majors won by Nicklaus. Woods has been stuck on 14 since 2008 when he won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on a shattered left leg.
"It feels great to get to 74 wins and obviously pass Jack," Woods said. "I did it at 36 years old, and it's something I'm very proud of."
Not bad for a guy who only four months ago walked off the course at Doral with another injury to his left Achilles tendon. He returned two weeks later and won Bay Hill, and off he went.
"I remember there was a time when people were saying I could never win again," Woods said.
His latest win took a lot of effort.
Brendon de Jonge, the 54-hole leader for the first time, didn't make a birdie and shot 77 to quickly fall out of contention. Adam Scott ran off four straight birdies on the front nine and was briefly part of a five-way tie for the lead until he made back-to-back bogeys on the back nine. Hunter Mahan also fell back.
It came down to Woods and Van Pelt, who have known each other since junior golf and could not be any more different. Woods is high energy, who now has won an astounding 27 percent of the PGA Tour events he has played. Van Pelt is laid-back Oklahoman, whose only official tour win came three years ago in Milwaukee, a tournament that no longer exists.
They didn't look much different on the golf course.
Three times, Woods made birdie putts to take the lead. Three times, Van Pelt answered him.
Woods holed a 20-foot birdie putt on 15th hole, extending his left arm to motion for the ball to go left, and when it did just that, he raised his arm with his index finger pointing to the sky. That put him at 9 under, a lead that lasted as long as it took Van Pelt to match him with a 10-foot birdie.
The par-5 16th had the most surprising twist.
Van Pelt blistered a tee shot 345 yards down the middle of the fairway, leaving only a 6-iron to the green. Woods hit a spectator with his tee shot in the left rough, had to lay up, and then was too aggressive with his wedge and went over the green and down an 8-foot slope. It was a like a pitcher in a tied baseball game who loaded the bases with no one out, only to get out of the jam.
Van Pelt's approach was slightly heavy and stopped in the thick collar of a bunker, so that he had to chip with his feet in the sand and his hands gripping the steel shaft of the wedge. He didn't get out of the rough, and his third shot went to the back of the green, just over 12 feet away for par. Woods' fourth shot up the slope hit the hole and ran 15 feet away.
Both hit good putts. Both missed. Both made bogey. They remained tied.
"It was difficult from the standpoint I had my legs in the bunker, and if I hit that chip a little too hard it goes over the green because you can't put any spin on it," Van Pelt said. "I was just trying to get the ball up in the air and play it out to the right a little bit and just got underneath it a little bit. And the second one, I thought I hit it great. I was surprised it rolled that far. And the putt, I mean, I've probably never hit a better putt than that in my life under those kind of circumstances.
"I pretty much hit every shot the way I wanted to that hole, just ended up being 6."
On the next hole, Van Pelt was in the left cut of rough and caught a flier, with a good swing getting a bad result. The ball shot out of the fluffy grass over the green, leaving him no chance to get near the hole. He went through the green and had to scramble for bogey, and Woods chipped up to 6 feet and made his putt for par to take a one-shot lead to the 18th.
"It's rare that we caught any fliers out here at all this week, and Bo caught one coming out of that rough," Woods said. "We had a good enough lie where we could have had one of those, but Bo caught one out of there and put it in the wrong spot and made bogey, and I got up and down."
Woods with a one-shot lead on the 18th, playing in control as he had for so much of the day, is tough to beat. He hit a fade off the tee. He hit a draw with a 9-iron into the green. He won.
And everyone was there to see it.
The AT&T National was a strange week -- record heat on Friday, followed by a violent wind storm that night that toppled trees and littered Congressional with limbs. The course was closed to spectators on Saturday, leading to an eerily quiet afternoon with Woods in contention. The spectators returned by the thousands on Sunday, and they got want they wanted to see.
"I think everyone kept it pent up for today, and it was raucous all day," Woods said.
Van Pelt was disappointed at making three straight bogeys for a 71, though he took away plenty of good feelings about the way he played on such a big stage.
"He's an amazing player," Van Pelt said. "We've known each other a long time, probably 20 years. He's fun to play with. That's why you travel 30 weeks a year, why you get up in the morning and make the sacrifices that you do, to have the opportunity to play the best player in the world in the final round with a chance to win."