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Woods' dominance is quickly rebuilding

Tiger Woods
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BETHESDA, Md. – In meteorological terms a derecho storm is a tempest that travels at least 250 miles with winds in excess of 58 mph, building on itself as it travels as if blowing downhill.

It’s a storm like the one that started brewing near Chicago last Friday as a simple squall but began expanding as it raced toward the Eastern Seaboard. By the time the derecho storm slammed into the Washington D.C. area just before midnight its winds were gusting to 70 mph.

As crews continued the cleanup effort at Congressional on Sunday the thought occurred that a derecho is the competitive equivalent of a player who after a prolonged dormant spell awakens with a run that includes three victories in his last seven starts.  

But where the derecho storm left at least 13 people dead, a million homes without power and more than 40 felled trees littered across Congressional, Tiger Woods left only bruised egos and a familiar reality in his wake at the AT&T National.

For Woods his two-stroke victory over Bo Van Pelt on a sweltering Sunday was more than the sum of its parts.

When Woods lurched into the most prolonged slump of his career in late 2009 the notion grew that he’d lost his intimidating edge. No longer, the theory went, would players peek at Sunday leaderboards half hoping not to see the letters “W-O-O-D-S.”

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On Sunday at Congressional Woods put that theory to the test, dueling with a half-dozen hopefuls throughout the day on his way to a closing 69 and an 8-under 276 total.

If the result looked familiar, the process was downright nostalgic.

After closing the gap on 54-hole leader Brendon de Jonge with a Saturday 67, Woods began the final round a stroke out of the lead, joined a group of five players tied for the lead at 6 under by the fourth hole and waited patiently for the field to narrow.

By the time he reached the back nine all but one of the challengers had drifted away; first de Jonge with a 3-over outward loop, followed in order by Adam Scott with back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 14 and 15, Hunter Mahan who drenched his second shot at the par-5 sixth and finally Van Pelt.

When Woods and Van Pelt reached the 14th tee no one was within a field goal and the two traded birdies and bogeys through the finish line.

On “silent Saturday,” when fans were kept from the golf course because of the debris left behind by Friday’s storm, Van Pelt mused that he felt a little cheated without the normal masses trailing Woods’ every move. On Sunday he was treated to the complete circus.

At the 15th hole the two traded birdies, on No. 16 they both signed for bogeys – Woods’ first miscue in 41 holes – and it was ultimately a flyer from the left rough that cost Van Pelt the title on the penultimate hole.

Woods was flawless on the 72nd hole, a cut driver that sailed 40 yards past Van Pelt’s effort and a drawn 9-iron held against the wind to 12 feet for a two-putt coronation.

“It's a lot of fun. He's an amazing player,” said Van Pelt, who closed with a 71 to finish alone in second place. “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 a tournament.”

Of the litany of statistics that bear mentioning for Woods – he tied for ninth in putting, tied for 17th in greens in regulation and ninth in strokes-gained putting – it was Woods’ average approach shot distance that stands out. He ranked sixth in that category at Congressional, an improvement of 10 spots over his season average.

“Proximity to the hole means two things,” Woods’ swing coach Sean Foley said. “First a player’s swing is becoming more grooved and second the player is confident in their putting from 12 feet and in.”

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In practical terms, however, the impact of Woods’ victory – the 74th Tour tilt of his career that moved him past Jack Nicklaus and into solo second place on the all-time list behind Sam Snead – goes well beyond ShotLink statistics and world rankings math.

There were those who contended that the cachet Woods enjoyed on Sundays had faded over his two lean years, that his name alone was no longer worth a half-stroke coming down the stretch.

Moments after Scott signed for his closing 67 to finish alone in third place he was asked if there was a time when the weight of Woods on a marquee was not as overwhelming as it once was.

“Yes, a little bit at a time there. But it’s all relative,” Scott said. “I don’t think he lost it completely. He’s potentially the greatest player that’s ever played and he’s a dangerous player in that position; his record speaks for itself. (But) there’s no doubt today that you look up there (on the leaderboard) and it’s a little bit more difficult.”

There were questions, however legitimate, that Woods had heard and harbored. One man’s criticism is another’s critical analysis, but throughout it all he never doubted his path or his ability to reclaim that aura of invincibility that defined the first decade of his career.

“I remember there was a time when people were saying I could never win again.  That was, I think, what, six months ago?” Woods said. “A lot of media people didn't think I could win again, and I had to deal with those questions for quite a bit. It was just a matter of time. I could see the pieces coming together. Sean (Foley) and I were working, and we see what's coming, and we can see the consistency, and it's just a matter of time.”

Where the metaphor unravels slightly is how quickly a derecho storm speeds across the landscape. Friday’s gale lasted just 45 mintues, while Woods’ current tempest seems building toward something much more prolonged, something much more profound.