A shot, a club twirl, a strut down the fairway. Tiger Woods had just hit a plush 9-iron to a little more than 16 feet from the cup on No. 18 at Congressional Country Club, and a sure par and a victory in the AT&T National were in hand.
But before he tapped in for par to beat Bo Van Pelt by two, before he finished off his third win of the season, surpassing Jack Nicklaus for second on the all-time victories list and jumping to first in the FedEx Cup standings for the first time in 100 weeks, Woods removed his cap, smiled and shook the hands of a U.S. Marine and a Naval officer standing by the 18th green and thanked them.
“Everyone I saw in the uniform this week I shook their hand,” he said.
For the better part of Sunday, Woods was, well, Tiger Woods. It took just five holes for him to grab the outright lead after knocking in a 10-foot birdie putt, and then he claimed it again with another 10-footer on the ninth after watching Van Pelt miss his putt low, giving the 2009 AT&T champ a one-shot lead after a wild front nine.
At one point on the opening side five players held a share for the lead. Australians Adam Scott and Jason Day raced up the leaderboard, combined for eight birdies with the former surging all the way up to just one back after beginning the day six down to Brendon de Jonge.
De Jonge, who remains winless in 137 career starts, collapsed as the others rose. The Virginia Tech graduate struggled to break 40 on the front, becoming an afterthought as he made the turn with Woods and Van Pelt. But on the back side Scott’s putter cooled, Day faded, Hunter Mahan, the leader entering the weekend, failed to summon his 2009 magic where he shot a 62 in the final round, and Billy Hurley III couldn’t muster the back nine 32 he had on Thursday. The remaining nine holes were a slugfest between Woods and Van Pelt.
The gum-chomping Van Pelt rolled in a 6-foot putt on the 11th to match Woods at 8-under with seven to play. For the next five holes punches were traded but no blood was drawn.
At the 12th, Woods, the 2009 champion and first to take multiple wins at the AT&T, displayed shades of the player that once won seven majors in 11 tries. With a stance half on a tree trunk and half in ankle-high rough, he hacked a 9-iron, thwacking it against the tree on his follow through, and managed to slip the ball under the branches and land it 30 feet from the hole.
“I had warned the gallery that, ‘be careful, this club might snap,’” Woods said. “I hit it. It came off great, and somehow the 9-iron didn’t bend.”
Van Pelt meanwhile, had played an easy iron from the middle of the fairway and hit the fat part of the green to wind up with a look at an 18-footer for birdie. No matter the brawling style that Woods used on the hole or the routine one played by Van Pelt, both wound up making par.
Tiger didn’t need such theatrics on the 15th, hitting the middle of the fairway and landing his approach outside of 20 feet. Van Pelt hit an easy wedge 10 feet inside Woods. It took just one putt for both of them to get home, extending their lead from the field to four strokes.
“I felt like on the back nine if I could just keep putting pressure on him that maybe he’d give me an opening,” Van Pelt said.
And he got his wish.
Woods took a cut line down the left side off the tee on 16. Only problem was, it didn’t cut. He wound up hitting a fan — Woods gave him a signed glove as compensation for the bruise — and was buried in the left-side rough. Van Pelt bombed a 345-yard drive down the center of the fairway, leaving himself with a 6-iron into the par-5.
But all of a sudden Van Pelt began to look not so much like a 15-year PGA Tour veteran capable of standing toe to toe with Woods and rather a man who had just one victory in 309 career starts heading into the tournament. His 6-iron fell woefully short and then his chip was equally as detrimental, nearly careening off the back of the green like Woods had done with his approach.
Ugly bogeys were the result for both, and ugly is how the rest of the round would be for Van Pelt. He caught a flier out of the rough on 17, blowing it well over the green. Woods made a routine par and Van Pelt found himself in one of the worst situations in all of sports: down one to Tiger Woods on the 18th hole, on Sunday, at Woods’ own tournament no less.
And like so many before him, Van Pelt wilted in the shadow of Woods, making a third consecutive bogey and failing to rise to the awfully high standard of being matched up with one of the game’s greatest.
“I’d have to say him,” said Van Pelt when asked who the greatest active player in golf is. “I’d say he’s playing the best golf in the world right now.”
While his 22nd career come-from-behind victory boosted Woods to the No. 1 spot in the FedEx Cup standings, he didn’t move a single spot in the world rankings. But with the British Open looming in three weeks, Tiger’s victory is sure to fuel talk about whether he has returned to the top of his game.
“Well, a lot of media people didn’t think I could win again,” he said. “And I had to deal with those questions for quite a bit. It was just a matter of time. Give me a little bit of time, and I feel like this is what I can do.”