Almost everything has changed in the life of Tiger Woods over the last three years, but that was hard to keep in mind as Woods held off a pesky Bo Van Pelt at the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club in Washington, D.C., on Sunday.
For Woods and golf in general, everything is starting to look very 2009.
Woods, who shot a two-under-par 69 to beat Van Pelt by two shots, notched his 74th career victory to surpass Jack Nicklaus’s career total and take over second place alone, eight wins behind all-time victories leader Sam Snead. Woods’s victory at Congressional marked his third of the year — he is the Tour’s first three-time winner this season — and his first at Congressional since the 2009 AT&T.
“Yeah, pretty much everything,” Woods said, when asked which part of his game has come around the most this year. “I remember there was a time when people were saying I could never win again. That was, I think, what, six months ago? Here we are.”
Woods spent 2010 and 2011 trying to rebound from personal upheaval, injury and a major swing change. He looked like a very old 36 as this season began, but over the last four months he’s won tournaments hosted by Arnold Palmer (Bay Hill) and Nicklaus (Memorial), and now Woods has again won the AT&T, the tournament that he hosts and brought to D.C. He’s healthy; he’s practicing; he’s winning.
“Give me a little bit of time,” Woods said, “and I feel like this is what I can do.”
“Feels almost like old times,” CBS’s David Feherty said after Woods’s birdie putt dropped over the front edge of the cup on the 15th green.
Van Pelt answered with a much shorter birdie putt.
Both players made a mess of the par-5 16th hole, making bogeys to go into the final two holes tied at eight under par. After airmailing the 17th green with his second shot out of the left rough, Van Pelt bogeyed, while Woods drained a six-footer for par. Woods also made par on 18, while Van Pelt (71) bogeyed again.
Adam Scott (67) finished alone in third place, three back.
They are almost the same age and regularly find their lockers near each other, but Woods and Van Pelt came into the week with little in common. Woods had 73 victories; Van Pelt one. Still, Van Pelt was tough, at times recalling the gritty Bob May, who pushed Woods to the brink at the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla.
“I've known Bo a long time,” said Woods, who donated his winnings of $1.17 million to his foundation, as he always has at this tournament, which benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation and gives 30,000 tickets to active military.
“We've gone at it since junior golf and college golf,” Woods added. “I've known him for a very long time — one of the greatest guys out here. It was a pleasure to play with him the last two days. We grinded, we competed, and it was just a matter of making the key putt or a key up and down and not making too many mistakes. This golf course was playing like a major championship.”
In fact, Van Pelt stuck with Woods for the final 36 holes at Congressional, which included one of the strangest third rounds of the year. After a second round in which players and caddies sought medical attention in the heat, a storm ripped through Congressional on Friday night, toppling trees and shredding tents. Citing dangerous conditions, Tour officials closed the course to spectators Saturday.
With a following estimated at fewer than 100 people — media, essential tournament workers, and a few others — Van Pelt and Woods matched third-round 67s, trading great shots that drew little applause. Van Pelt called it a typical “Bo Van Pelt crowd,” joking that he was used to playing for such a sparse gallery.
But even when the crowds returned Sunday, Van Pelt, gunning for his first official Tour victory since the ’09 U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee (which no longer exists), continued to match Woods almost shot for shot.
“He's an amazing player,” Van Pelt said of Woods. “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 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 a tournament. I was looking forward to it.”
Van Pelt’s sixth top-10 finish in 2012 tied him with Jason Dufner and Matt Kuchar for most on Tour. That may be cold comfort, though. Since 2010, Van Pelt has more top-10 finishes without a victory (19) than any other player on Tour.
For his part, Woods continues to inch closer to the player who dominated golf from 1997 until his life began to unravel at the end of ’09. He has not won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, and remains stuck at 14 in his bid to catch Nicklaus’s 18 — golf’s most famous statistic — but recent form suggests his 15th major championship win may be close at hand. (The British Open starts July 19 in England.)
Congressional played tougher and more major-like for the AT&T National than it did for the 2011 U.S. Open. It was at that tournament that golf was busy anointing Rory McIlroy as Woods’s successor; Woods, meanwhile, was out with a leg injury that delayed the full flowering of his swing under coach Sean Foley. In winning the AT&T National, Woods hit 48 of 72 greens in regulation (tied for 17th in the field), including an improbable 9-iron shot in which he nearly broke his club on a tree on the 12th hole. He averaged 28 putts per round (T9).
“His rhythm stayed the same for 36 holes under the heat,” Van Pelt said. “I think he's got to be pleased with that.”
So much has happened in 30-plus months, but for Woods, the landscape is looking pleasantly familiar. Two and a half years after his life fell apart, and a year after McIlroy-mania, it’s looking like the next Tiger Woods may just be Tiger Woods.