BETHESDA - Most golf fans probably won't concede that Tiger Woods is "back" as the game's dominant player unless and until he wins a major title.
But after making AT&T National his third win in his past seven events, a pretty compelling case can be made that he's already back.
The 10-time PGA Tour Player of the Year fired a Sunday 69 at Congressional Country Club to finish at 8 under and win the event that he hosts for the second time, finishing two strokes ahead of Bo Van Pelt, who matched him shot for shot over the final two rounds until the last two holes.
Woods now leads the PGA Tour in wins this season and the $1,170,000 first-place check moved him into first place on the money list. He also took over the top spot in the tour's season-long FedEx Cup standings. He's still behind Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood in the world rankings, but Van Pelt wasted no time when asked who's really the best in the game.
"I'd have to say him," said Van Pelt, who bogeyed the final three holes.
It wasn't so long ago that Woods was being written off, having gone 2 1/2 years without a win following a much-publicized car accident and divorce, and then dealing with injuries and a swing change.
"I remember there was a time when people were saying I could never win again," Woods said. "I think that was [four] months ago. Here we are."
Woods' 74th career victory moved him into second place alone on the PGA Tour's all-time wins list, one ahead of Nicklaus and eight behind Sam Snead. He has now picked off wins in tournaments hosted by the three most famous golfers on the planet - Arnold Palmer (Bay Hill), Nicklaus (The Memorial) and himself - over the past three months.
"It feels great to get to 74 wins and pass Jack, and I did it at 36 years old, something I'm very proud of," said Woods, who admitted he lost some confidence during his slump but always believed he could get back to where he was. "It was just a matter of time. I could see the pieces coming together."
Adam Scott finished third alone, three behind Woods. The Aussie played as well as anyone on the 7,569-yard, par-71 course after an opening 75 that was impacted by his late arrival to the course on Thursday morning.
"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," he said. "I only have myself to blame."
Naval Academy graduate Billy Hurley III had his best career finish in a four-way tie for fourth at 4 under. Third-round leader Brendon de Jonge faded into a tie for 11th with a 77.
After a so-so opening round of 72, Woods seemed in complete control of his game. He went 50 consecutive holes without a bogey after the first hole of his second round, when he moved into contention with a 68. He pulled to within one shot of the lead with a sizzling 67 on Saturday and he grabbed a share of the lead after three holes Sunday and never fell out of it.
With the heat index over 100 degrees, the leaders played in front of large, vocal crowds, unlike Saturday when fans weren't allowed onto the premises after a late-night storm felled more than 50 trees. Woods credited the staff and crew for getting the course into playable shape for the weekend, and also praised the fans.
De Jonge began the day one ahead of playing partners Woods and Van Pelt but struggled almost from the start. Scott made his run with a 5-under 31 on the front to get into a five-way tie for the lead at 6 under.
But Woods got it to 7 under with a 10-foot birdie putt at the fifth and Van Pelt joined him with a tap-in birdie at the par-5 sixth. It was pretty much a two-man game from there as Scott and the rest fell back.
Woods went briefly ahead when he played a beautiful sand wedge from the right rough to within 10 feet
on the long, par-5 ninth and sank the putt to get to 8 under. Van Pelt tied him on the 11th with a 6-foot birdie after a brilliant approach. They traded pars on the next three holes and matched birdies on No. 15, with Woods curling in a big breaking, downhill, 21-footer and Van Pelt cashing in from 10 feet.
They then made a mess of the par-5 16th.
Woods drove into the left rough, hitting a spectator, and had to lay back 100 yards short of the pin with his second shot. But his approach shot went long, over the green and down a steep hill. He hit the cup on his chip, but his ball ran 15 feet past and he missed the comebacker for par.
Meanwhile, Van Pelt hit a mammoth drive that left him with just a 6-iron in. But his 6-iron approach from 240 yards came up well short, just outside of a bunker. Standing in the sand, he hit a terrible pitch, still short of the green. He then chipped it 12 feet past and missed his par putt as well, leaving the two of them still tied heading to the final two holes.
"Obviously, when he hit it over the green on 16, I had my opportunity," Van Pelt said.
After failing to take advantage, he couldn't get straightened out.
Woods got up and down from just in front of the green at the 17th, making a 6-footer for par that gave him sole possession of the lead because Van Pelt drove into the left rough, went over the green on his second shot, pitched past and settled for a second consecutive bogey.
Woods found the fairway with a perfect drive at the last, played a fine 9-iron to within 16 feet and two-putted for the win after Van Pelt missed a desperation birdie chip from 50 feet (and then missed his par putt).
Van Pelt was disappointed with his finish, but thought he played well and enjoyed going mano a mano with Woods.
"That's why you travel 30 weeks a year, why you get up in the morning, the sacrifices that you do make, to have the opportunity to play with the best player in the world in the final group with a chance to win a tournament," he said.
Questions will, of course, persist as to whether Woods is truly "back." He may get annoyed by the constant scrutiny his game is under, but he says it doesn't affect him.
"I won a U.S. Open on a broken leg," he said. "I can handle it."