BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 30: Tiger Woods waves as he walks off the 18th green during Round Three of the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club on June 30, 2012 in Bethesda, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Whether he's "back" or not, Tiger Woods is the hottest golfer on the planet.
The guy Tiger Woods beat in head-to-head play down the stretch on Sunday at Congressional Country Club knew whereof he spoke. With a front-row seat to his playing partner’s third win of the season, Bo Van Pelt watched Woods grind out his 74th tour victory, surpassing Jack Nicklaus along the way, and pronounced him better than most.
"No offense to any of those other guys, but I think he's the only guy to win three tournaments on tour this year,” Van Pelt told reporters after finally blinking on the 17th hole, allowing Woods (8-under) to win the AT&T National by two strokes. “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.”
Even the haters would have difficulty debating that, following Woods’ third triumph in seven starts after going 923 days between wins. Woods, who conceded he was “very proud” to notch 74 Ws and surpass Nicklaus’ wins total, was extremely pleased with the state of his game.
“Pretty much everything” in his repertoire clicks these days, said Woods, who could not resist tweaking those who wondered, since Thanksgiving 2009, whether he was done. “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. Four months ago? Four months ago, okay.”
There were times during Sunday’s finale when Woods could have let the match get away from him. Indeed, he held the lead three times after starting the day tied with Van Pelt at 6-under, one shot back of their third playing partner, Brendon de Jonge, only to watch Van Pelt roll in birdies to reclaim a share of first place.
A yanked hook off the 16th tee hit a spectator, while Van Pelt split the fairway with a 345-yard drive, and that could have finished Woods -- especially after he laid up and hit a wedge that blew past the back flag and rolled down a slope, leaving a difficult shot up an eight-foot hill.
For once, however, Van Pelt could not take advantage, as he came up short with his approach and had to improvise to hit his next shot. With his ball in deep rough above a green-side bunker, he had to stand in the sand and choke up on a wedge. The ball barely moved and he chipped his fourth shot some 12 feet past the pin. Each golfer ended up making bogey, and it was onto No. 17 all square.
"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,” Van Pelt explained about the awkward shot with the ball way above his feet.
Woods finally put the hammer down on 17 after Van Pelt’s flier from the rough zipped past the green and left him with another tough chip. He bogeyed the hole, Woods canned a six-foot par putt, and it was all over but the roars -- missing during Saturday’s fan-free round -- for Tiger on 18. A Tiger twirl of his club after a perfect tee shot on the final hole let everyone know the game was over.
While the gold standard for Woods will always be how many majors he finally cadges and whether he’ll ever overtake Nicklaus’ record of 18, winning 74 times on tour is a rather remarkable feat. It’s difficult to imagine anyone of any generation coming close to racking up nearly so many wins, and now Woods has only one legend -- Sam Snead -- ahead of him in that category.
The way Woods -- whose several knee surgeries and other ailments have made him appear older than his years -- sounded after Sunday’s victory, it may not be long before he snatches the 82-wins crown from Snead.
“I've had a number of good years in my career so far, and I feel like I've got a lot more ahead of me,” he said. “It feels great to get to 74 wins and obviously pass Jack. I did it at 36 years old, and it's something I’m very proud of.”
With all of his off- and on-course woes over the past several years, Woods may have lost the intimidation factor he seemed to possess when he was the world’s No. 1. But some of the stats he’s racked up are likely to have opponents shaking their heads.
Woods went 41 holes without a bogey on a course that players said beat them up more than it did during last year’s U.S. Open. He now tops the FedEx Cup leaderboard for the first time since September 2009, leads the money list and has a chance to climb back to the top ranking with strong performances in the season’s next, and final, two major championships.
Some other stats stand out as well: Woods is first on tour in scoring average, ranks fifth in total driving (distance plus accuracy off the tee), and is ninth in all-around ranking, 10th in greens in regulation and 14th in strokes gained-putting.
Just a few numbers for Phil Mickelson, Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley and the other notables to think about as they prepare to tee it up with Woods, who’ll have another quick opportunity to chip away at Snead’s lofty place in history in this week’s Greenbrier Classic.
You’ll also have to forgive Woods’ competitors if they believe it’s deja vu all over again. In 2009, Woods won the same events he’s conquered so far this year -- Arnold Palmer Invitational, Memorial and AT&T National -- on his way to six tour victories and his second FedExCup. While he hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open, who can doubt that he has the game and the confidence to make solid runs at the British Open and PGA Championship?
"I had a good year that year,” Woods said about pre-November ’09. "I think I won six times that year. That would be nice if I could get that same total with a couple majors in there."