This is what Washington golf is supposed to be about, that moment Sunday evening when the best player in the field and perhaps the world, on the most renowned course the region knows, taps in for par on the 18th green, then raises both arms in triumph. The gallery at Congressional Country Club wrapped from across the greenside pond, up the hill toward the many decks of the mammoth clubhouse, then down another hill and around again, not a sodden seat left unclaimed. They cheered for Tiger Woods, and Tiger Woods tipped his hat right back, then smiled broadly.
Woods won the AT&T National on Sunday night, surviving a fun duel with a game, journeyman pro named Bo Van Pelt for the 74th victory of his PGA Tour career, moving into second place on the all-time list, one more than Jack Nicklaus, the legend who is considered Woods’s only peer.
The victory, though, was more than just one in six dozen over an increasingly legendary career. It brought back together Woods and Washington, put further behind the injuries that have dogged Woods off and on for four years, and gave thousands of Washington fans — kept off the course Saturday because of damage from Friday night’s storms — a place where hanging out in the heat didn’t seem so bad. On Saturday, damage from Friday’s thunderstorms left organizers to stage the event without fans allowed on the course. On Sunday, 48,611 showed up to watch Woods win.
“I remember there was a time when people were saying I could never win again,” Woods said. “That was, what? Six months ago? Here we are.”
That this happened at Congressional, in Bethesda, is somehow fitting. Woods is the official host of the AT&T National. His foundation both stages it and benefits from it. When he almost single-handedly saved professional golf in the area in 2007 by merging a heavyweight sponsor with a heavyweight golf course, he also pledged to spread his foundation’s work to the District. Now, 25 District kids have received college scholarships through the foundation, and two campuses in existing Washington schools provide programs in science, math, media — a host of subjects.
Woods donates his earnings from this event — $1.17 million for the win — to his foundation. “So they’re very happy,” he said.
“This week has been phenomenal,” said Greg McLaughlin, the CEO of the Tiger Woods Foundation. “D.C. is such a great sports town, and the fans were awesome. They hung in there through the high temperatures and the storm. I can’t wait to come back in 2013.”
But this was also something of a reunion. Woods’s tournament, not to mention Woods himself, hadn’t played in the Washington area since 2009, when he won this very event, then joked on the 18th green as he presented the trophy to himself. Congressional hosted the U.S. Open last year, and in order to completely redo the club’s greens and then stage that event — one of golf’s four major championships — Woods’s foundation moved the tournament to suburban Philadelphia for two years. In the meantime, Woods went through a lurid sex scandal, got divorced, and moved.
And when Congressional finally hosted its biggest event, Woods was laid up with a series of nagging injuries to his left knee and Achilles’ tendon. He didn’t win a tournament for more than two years.
“Of course the confidence wanes,” Woods said Sunday.
Now, it is back. The week served, too, as a return for Congressional itself, which had its reputation stained a year ago. Rory McIlroy, a young star from Northern Ireland, savaged the Blue Course, setting U.S. Open records for fewest total strokes (268) and most strokes under par (16). The field generally had its way with a course that is accustomed to dictating the terms of engagement.
This week, though, drier conditions — even with Friday night’s thunderstorms — allowed the course to stay firm, making it more difficult to stop the ball on the greens. Woods’s winning total was 8-under-par 276, eight shots higher than McIlroy a year ago.
Is Congressional, after all, worthy?
“It is,” Woods said. “It’s a fantastic venue.”
He used it as a stage to top Van Pelt, the kind of character — 37 years old, from Tulsa, with one PGA Tour win to his credit that’s now three years old — whom Woods has so often vanquished in such situations. He made one signature Woods shot, a 9-iron from behind a tree at No. 12, thrashing at the ball hard enough that he was concerned the club would break upon impact with the trunk and sail into the gallery.
Instead, the ball settled in the middle of the green. Woods simply looked down the shaft of the 9-iron, making sure it hadn’t bent.
“He’s an amazing player,” Van Pelt said. “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 the tournament.”
Van Pelt, though, merely became victim No. 74. Though he remained tied with Woods through No. 16 — where both players made bogey — he bogeyed 17 and 18 as well.
“I’d say he’s playing the best golf in the world right now,” Van Pelt said.
When Woods stood in the 18th fairway, he held a one-shot lead, and he effectively ended the event with one final swing of that 9-iron, a gorgeous shot that landed near the middle of the green and nuzzled its way back toward the pin. As Woods walked down the fairway, Lt. Ryan Forbes of the Navy and Staff Sgt. Chris Goepper of the Marines — who had been announcing the arrival of players to the final green all afternoon — stood to the side.
“Shake their ha-ands!” the crowd chanted. “Shake their ha-ands!”
Woods, the son of a special ops soldier who served two tours in Vietnam, walked toward them, took off his cap, and shook their hands. He then walked to the green and finished his business. Tiger Woods and Congressional, both approaching their old standing in the very same breath.