The progress in Tiger Woods’ ascent back to the top of golf’s hierarchy will continue to be graded, analyzed and debated until he wins a major. Tour wins are an indisputable measure, though, and the golf world now has three pieces of evidence that Woods is closing in on his perch.
He won the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club on Sunday with a final-round 2-under 69, outlasting Bo Van Pelt in a dramatic slugfest that showcased the shot-making ability that made Woods the best in the world before leg injuries corrupted his form.
Woods finished 8-under for the tournament to become the first player on tour this season to accumulate three victories. He did it in a span of only seven starts dating from late March.
“I remember there was a time when people were saying I could never win again,” Woods said. “That was four months ago. Here we are.”
There was unmistakable smugness in Woods smile. Sure, only four of the top 20 players in the Official World Golf Ranking played in this tournament, but there were flashes of vintage Tiger that serve notice he is gaining momentum ahead of the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in three weeks.
Van Pelt witnessed them first hand while he played with Woods on Saturday and dueled against him Sunday. Van Pelt punched and counterpunched in the final round, providing thrilling drama until he bogeyed each of the final three holes and finished two shots back. Woods, like the Woods of old, would not be outlasted.
He played 41 consecutive holes at par or better from the second round until the 16th hole Sunday. And he emerged victorious from a crowded leader board that at one time Sunday included a five-way tie for first.
Three players — Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood — are ranked ahead of Woods, but that was no consolation to Van Pelt Sunday evening.
“No offense to any of those other guys, but I think he’s the only guy to win three tournaments on tour this year, 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 said.
Woods says he knew all along he’d return to this point. He went from November 2009 until last December without a victory, which was an eternity considering how dominant he was before the drought.
He overhauled his swing with coach Sean Foley, and now that he’s healthy following left knee and Achilles tendon problems, the rest of the field could be in trouble.
“I could see the pieces coming together,” Woods said. “Sean and I were working, and we see what’s coming, and we can see the consistency, and it’s just a matter of time. Just stay the course, and if you look at my ball‑striking so far this year, it’s gotten more and more consistent.
“I had basically a year away from it because I was hurt. I couldn’t practice. And changing systems. Give me a little bit of time, and I feel like this is what I can do.”
We’re all familiar with what Woods can do. Take, for example, his second shot on the par-4 12th on Sunday, when he restored the roar to these grounds after a quiet Saturday without fans.
His drive flew left, hit Comcast SportsNet anchor Chick Hernandez in the left arm and settled a foot to the right of the tree on the edge of a pile of branches assembled during the cleanup from Friday’s violent storm.
Woods stumbled over the branches while he practiced his swing with a 9-iron, a perfect intersection of weekend storylines. He stood over the ball with 165 yards to the front of the green and measured that his follow through would hit the tree. No worries.
“I had warned the gallery that, be careful, this club might snap, because obviously I’m hooking it, so I’ve got to throw it, I’ve got to put some speed into it, and I can’t ‑‑ I’m not 100 percent sure I can stop it before I hit the tree,” Woods said.
The club face whacked the trunk, as expected, leaving a bare spot the size of a 50-cent piece. The ball hooked, just as Woods intended, and rolled to within 33 feet of the cup.
Woods two-putted to save par, remain level with Van Pelt, and stay in position to capitalize when Van Pelt stumbled coming in.
“He seemed like he kept his rhythm for two days, and I think whenever you’re working on something in your golf swing, that’s the hardest thing to mesh is mesh the physical with the rhythm,” Van Pelt said. “I think that just goes to show you he’s getting way more comfortable what he’s doing golf swing-wise because his rhythm stayed the same for 36 holes under the heat.”
Woods tapped in his par on the 72nd hole to a standing ovation. A reporter noted later that Woods this year has now won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Memorial and this tournament. Those are the first three events he won in 2009 en route to six that year.
“That would be nice if I could get that same total,” Woods said, smiling, “with a couple majors in there.”