BETHESDA, Md. — The flight of his shot into the 18th green was so pure that Tiger Woods immediately started walking and twirled his club, knowing that it effectively wrapped up another win at the AT&T National. Making it even more special was the sound of thousands of fans at Congressional to see it.
One day after spectators were kept away from the course because of debris from a violent wind storm, they returned Sunday in full force and got what they expected – Woods, in his red shirt, outlasting Bo Van Pelt in a back-nine duel, and posing with another trophy.
“Yesterday was a silent day,” Woods said. “I think everyone saved up for today. What an atmosphere to play in front of.”
Woods closed with 2-under 69 – at one point going 41 holes without a bogey on a Congressional course that was tougher than when it held the U.S. Open last year – and won for the third time this year. It was the 74th win of his career, moving him past Jack Nicklaus into second place on the PGA Tour, eight short of Sam Snead’s record.
Not bad for a guy who only five months ago walked off the course at Doral with another injury to his left Achilles tendon.
“I remember there was a time when people were saying I could never win again,” Woods said.
He stayed at No. 4 in the world, but a couple of other rankings indicate how he is trending. Woods moved to the top of the PGA Tour money list and the FedEx Cup standings for the first time since September 2009.
And this win puts him in a position to reclaim No. 1 over the final two majors of the year. The ranking is based on points over two years. If it were a vote, Van Pelt knows how he would cast his ballot.
“I think he’s the only guy to win three tournaments on tour this year, is that correct?” he said. “On three different golf 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.”
Van Pelt made him work for it.
Three times, Woods took the outright lead in the final round. Each time, Van Pelt made a birdie of his own to catch him. The tournament was decided on the last three holes, and it featured a surprising turn of events.
Van Pelt had Woods on the ropes on the par-5 16th by ripping a 345-yard tee shot and having only a 6-iron into the green. Woods hit a spectator in the left rough with his tee shot, laid up, and then attacked a back flag only to see the ball tumble over the green and down an 8-foot slope. It looked as if it might be a two-shot swing for Van Pelt, or at least the lead going to the 17th.
That’s when Van Pelt answered with unforced errors of his own. His 6-iron was slightly heavy and didn’t quite reach the bunker, meaning he had to plant his feet in the sand and grip the wedge on the shaft for his third shot. He moved it only a few yards, still in the collar of the rough, and chipped about 12 feet by the hole. Woods’ chip up the slope rolled 15 feet by, and he missed the par putt.
Van Pelt also missed his par putt, and they walked away from that mess still tied for the lead.
“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 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 17th, Van Pelt caught a flier from the first cut of rough and the ball shot over the green and near the grandstand, leaving him an impossible chip. He hit through the green and had to scramble to make bogey, and Woods took the outright lead for the third time all day <0x2014> this time for good.
He made a 6-foot par putt, taking a one-shot lead to the 18th, and played it to perfection.
Brendon de Jonge of Zimbabwe, who had a one-shot lead going into the final round, didn’t make birdie and closed with a 77.
Adam Scott went out in 31 and was briefly tied for the lead until a few bogeys on the back nine. He had to settle for a 67, which put him alone in third at 5 under.
Billy Hurley, the Annapolis graduate who spent five years in the Navy, closed with a 72 and tied for fourth along with Robert Garrigus (70), Jhonattan Vegas (71) and Seung-yul Noh of South Korea, who had a 73.
Woods has three wins, all of them in a different manner.
He pulled away early at Bay Hill and played efficiently for a five-shot win; he rallied from four shots behind with an incredible chip-in late in the round and won the Memorial. This was a two-man duel he hasn’t experienced in America since he was on the losing end to Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship.
One day after spectators were kept out of Congressional because of toppled trees and hundreds of limbs scattered about the course, they were as loud as ever. The marshals were back to work, collecting a half-dozen cell phones from fans who were caught taking pictures.
Woods complained of a camera on his tee shot on the 16th, and having to back off his tee shot on the 17th because of another camera. That didn’t happen on Saturday. But he loved what he called the pent-up energy of the crowd, and couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if there had been no spectators when the trophy was handed out.
“As long as I won, I would be OK,” he said.
Scott, who overslept Thursday morning and made it to the tee with only minutes to spare, ran off four straight birdies late on the front nine to reach 6 under. But after making three tough par saves on the back nine, he ran out of luck. Back-to-back bogeys took him out of the game.
“The story of my year. I need to try and play well for four days,” said Scott, who opened with a 75. “You can ‘if’ and ‘but’ and you can argue, but my 3 over through three was due to my very brief warm-up on Thursday, and that might end up being the difference between winning and not this week. I only have myself to blame.”
In the final hour, it was clear this would come down to Woods and Van Pelt <0x2014> one player with more than 70 career wins and another guy whose only official PGA Tour win came in Milwaukee, a tournament that no longer exists.
On the golf course, they looked far more equal than their records indicate.
Woods delivered a made-for-TV shot on the 12th hole when his tee shot left and close to a tree. He couldn’t follow through without hitting the tree, and he warned the gallery that the 9-iron might snap in half. Instead, the shaft glanced off the tree and bowed at impact, while the shot sailed toward the flag and settled 30 feet away.
Van Pelt was simply efficient. He twice missed birdie putts inside 15 feet, but he kept giving himself chances.
In the end, all he made were mistakes, which rarely works against Woods.
“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 you 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.”