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Tiger Woods takes another step toward the top

Monday - 7/2/2012, 5:21am  ET

By DOUG FERGUSON
AP Golf Writer

BETHESDA, Md. (AP) - The images of Tiger Woods, dressed in his red shirt and raising both arms on the 18th green after another victory, are no longer highlights from years gone by.

When he outlasted Bo Van Pelt in a tense duel on the back-nine Sunday at Congressional, Woods won for third time in his last seven tournaments dating to the late March. He still hasn't figured out the majors this year, though he has two more remaining.

And while winning the AT&T National kept him at No. 4 in the world, he is starting to be looked upon the way he once was.

"I think he's the only guy to win three tournaments on tour this year, is that correct?" Van Pelt said. "On three different 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."

Woods closed with a 2-under 69, making only one bogey in his final 44 holes on a course that was tougher than it was for the U.S. Open last year. Van Pelt had him in trouble late in the round, but only briefly, and Woods effectively pulled away on the last two holes by letting his opponents get the bad breaks and make the bogeys.

He now was 74 wins on the PGA Tour, moving past Jack Nicklaus into second place, leaving him eight wins away from the record held by Sam Snead. Perhaps it's only fitting that Woods now heads to The Greenbrier Classic, where Snead was the first head professional.

Woods at least moved to No. 1 in two other categories _ the PGA Tour money list and the FedEx Cup standings, for the first time since September 2009.

At this rate, Woods is more likely to get to Snead's record of 82 tour wins than the record that means the most to him _ the 18 majors won by Nicklaus. Woods has been stuck on 14 since 2008 when he won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on a shattered left leg.

"It feels great to get to 74 wins and obviously pass Jack," Woods said. "I did it at 36 years old, and it's something I'm very proud of."

Not bad for a guy who only four months ago walked off the course at Doral with another injury to his left Achilles tendon. He returned two weeks later and won Bay Hill, and off he went.

"I remember there was a time when people were saying I could never win again," Woods said.

His latest win took a lot of effort.

Brendon de Jonge, the 54-hole leader for the first time, didn't make a birdie and shot 77 to quickly fall out of contention. Adam Scott ran off four straight birdies on the front nine and was briefly part of a five-way tie for the lead until he made back-to-back bogeys on the back nine. Hunter Mahan also fell back.

It came down to Woods and Van Pelt, who have known each other since junior golf and could not be any more different. Woods is high energy, who now has won an astounding 27 percent of the PGA Tour events he has played. Van Pelt is laid-back Oklahoman, whose only official tour win came three years ago in Milwaukee, a tournament that no longer exists.

They didn't look much different on the golf course.

Three times, Woods made birdie putts to take the lead. Three times, Van Pelt answered him.

Woods holed a 20-foot birdie putt on 15th hole, extending his left arm to motion for the ball to go left, and when it did just that, he raised his arm with his index finger pointing to the sky. That put him at 9 under, a lead that lasted as long as it took Van Pelt to match him with a 10-foot birdie.

The par-5 16th had the most surprising twist.

Van Pelt blistered a tee shot 345 yards down the middle of the fairway, leaving only a 6-iron to the green. Woods hit a spectator with his tee shot in the left rough, had to lay up, and then was too aggressive with his wedge and went over the green and down an 8-foot slope. It was a like a pitcher in a tied baseball game who loaded the bases with no one out, only to get out of the jam.

Van Pelt's approach was slightly heavy and stopped in the thick collar of a bunker, so that he had to chip with his feet in the sand and his hands gripping the steel shaft of the wedge. He didn't get out of the rough, and his third shot went to the back of the green, just over 12 feet away for par. Woods' fourth shot up the slope hit the hole and ran 15 feet away.

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