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Tiger Woods passes Jack Nicklaus for second in all-time wins and all eyes turn to the British Open

Brian Murphy
Yahoo Sports

Today's topic: Tiger Woods.

Believers and cynics, start your engines.

Tiger Woods, in fact, keeps turning his own ignition key, waiting for that major motor to rev.

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Tiger Woods captured his third win of 2012 with his victory at Congressional. (Reuters)

He won Arnold Palmer's shindig at Bay Hill in March, his last tournament before the Masters … and then finished tie-40th at Augusta National.

He won Jack Nicklaus' event at Muirfield Village in early June, the last tournament before the U.S. Open … and then finished tie-21st at the Olympic Club.

And Sunday he won his own event at Congressional, a PGA Tour-leading third win of the year, his 74th career tour win, passing Nicklaus for second on the all-time list (he needs eight more to equal Sam Snead) and all any cynics can ask is: How's he going to do two weeks from Thursday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes at the British Open?

After all, to whom much is given – talent, hype, records, fame, riches, scrutiny – much is expected, as I was just saying to my good friend, LeBron James.

Tiger divides the room like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes divide common property.

[Related: Tiger Woods notches third win of 2012]

On the one hand, believers say, there is no arguing with the man's game. Still piecing together his reputation and his body after significant damage to both the past few years, Tiger has won three times in 11 starts. Or, four wins in 12 starts, if you count December's Chevron Challenge. Forget the craziness of that win percentage in golf – if he was a baseball player, his .333 would have earned him an all-star berth. Move over, Melky Cabrera.

On the other hand, doubters say only a major counts as a Tiger win of significance, and he hasn't won one since 2008. In fact, after his uninspiring Masters, he placed himself squarely in the hunt at the U.S. Open in San Francisco last month. Then, he faltered under pressure on the weekend, shooting 73-73. Hmmm.

On the one hand, believers say, he produced big moment after big moment in Sunday's win. Facing a potential disaster on the 16th hole, he made a good bogey. He made a knee-knocking six-footer on the 17th hole to take the lead. He smoked a 345-yard drive center-cut on 18 when his driver is often his least reliable club. His 9-iron approach to seal the win was so purely struck, his club twirl and immediate strut told you all you need to know about how Tiger Woods handles pressure golf.

On the other hand, doubters say, his only task was to hold off the hugely undecorated Bo Van Pelt. And Van Pelt obliged, essentially handing Tiger the victory by finishing bogey-bogey-bogey when tied for the lead. Or, as the sports humor web site, The Sports Pickle, tweeted shortly after the AT&T National wrapped up: "All the critics who said Tiger Woods couldn't stare down Bo Van Pelt in the final round of a non-major look foolish now." Oh!

The argument can go on: The believers brag that Tiger shot 67-69 in weekend heat so insanely stifling, the Tour shut down Congressional to fans Saturday. Yes, say the doubters, he's fit – but he only made one putt longer than 10 feet on Sunday, raising questions about the flat stick under pressure.

Believers can crow that Sunday was a glorious day for champions who wear red – their beloved Tiger, and the incomparable world champion Spanish national soccer team, which won Euro2012. Ah, yes, doubters say – but Spain hoists the important trophies (two Euros and a World Cup) while Tiger hasn't won a major since George W. Bush was president.

Nothing spices up a Sunday afternoon like the re-emergence of Tiger Woods. Like similar lightning-rod topics – LeBron, Justin Bieber and ObamaCare come to mind – you just can't stay neutral on the guy.

Scorecard of the week

70-69-71-67 – 11-under 277, Rory McIlroy, tie-10th, European Tour Irish Open, Royal Portrush, County Antrim, Northern Ireland.

Then again, there's the case of Rory McIlroy.

If he is, indeed, the player to herald the next generation to supplant Tiger Woods, he's got a funny way of showing it.

McIlroy would kill for Tiger's three-win season. He has all of one win, and not only has he missed three of his last five cuts (including the U.S. Open), but also he couldn't do better than tie for 10th on his home turf in Northern Ireland. Portrush is a place where McIlroy shot 61 as a 16-year-old. Oh, the youthful days of innocence.

At 23, McIlroy now battles cynics who wonder why he hasn't followed up on last year's U.S. Open win with another major, critics who say his relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki has robbed him of his work ethic and golf scorecards that don't indicate he's the No. 2-ranked player in the world.

McIlroy tries to remain his humble, chipper self. He consistently praised the home golf fans in Ulster. He talked of working on his fade for Royal Lytham. He told reporters he doesn't mind "a few clicks here and there" from cell phones at Portrush – tacking away from Tiger's anti-camera lifestyle.

And, he opens up to his 1.1 million Twitter followers, sharing the news Friday that he and Wozniacki were to spend the evening in Belfast at dinner and a movie.

How cute, one might say – except to learn Wozniacki was available to share popcorn only because she'd lost in the first round at Wimbledon last week. The former top-ranked tennis star has fallen to No. 7 in the world and not made a dent at the majors this year. Asked if McIlroy was affecting her tennis, Wozniacki answered at Wimbledon: "No." Results may indicate otherwise, for both players.

Taking my life lessons from "The Brady Bunch," the memory is stirred to an episode where two courting teenagers at an ice cream parlor order "Two Lover's Delights" to indicate their affection. A bitter cynic might say Rory and Caroline could order a special version of the ice cream special – "Two Loser's Delights."

Oh! Was that my out-loud voice?

Come on, you lovebirds. We're happy you're happy, but we'd like to see you ply your craft as well.

Mulligan of the week

Known to golf fans as a capable player, Van Pelt has carved a fine career of earnings. The 37-year-old played well enough for five top-10s entering the AT&T National, and though he'd only won once on tour in 310 career starts, he still forged a No. 32 Official World Golf Ranking.

So it wasn't outrageous – or was it? – to think he could have the goods to outduel Tiger down the stretch once the two joined in lockstep atop the leaderboard on the back nine. And Van Pelt showed some chops, too. When Tiger made a 20-footer for birdie on No. 15, Van Pelt poured in a matching birdie on top of him. And on the 16th tee, Tiger blinked first, yanking his shot into the rough on the par-5. Van Pelt had the advantage when he roasted his drive and had a 6-iron in. With Tiger looking at a possible bogey, Van Pelt was looking at a possible birdie and perhaps a two-shot swing.

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Bo Van Pelt (AP)

Except … Van Pelt's 6-iron was heavy and came up short. That was only the half of it. It nestled in the greenside rough near the neck of the green and left Van Pelt a sidehill stance with his feet in a bunker. Not ideal. And, in fact, his next shot showed as much – a fluffy flub of a chip that stayed in the rough. Van Pelt would make 6, just like Tiger, and waste his big opportunity.

So in the interest of CBS drama to the final hole, and in the interest of making Tiger Woods answer every call, let's go back out to the 16th fairway at Congressional, remind Van Pelt of the perils of missing left, let him breathe a little, make sure he has the right club and … give that man a mulligan!

Broadcast moment of the week

"How about Tiger Woods coming back off of Olympic Club and the weekend there? Again, everybody's trying to make a fast conclusion. He's back! Or, he's not back! Or, he'll never be back! Why can't people just let it play out and quit trying to be the first one to make some great proclamation and say: 'See, I told ya!' " – Jim Nantz, CBS, coming as close to a ruffled-feather rant as the silky-smooth anchor ever will.

Hark! Do I hear a plea for sanity and patience? James – who told you this knee-jerk Internet world has room for those old-fashioned qualities?

Setting aside the fact that Nantz undermined the very reason for columns like this to exist, and setting aside the fact that he forcefully articulated better color analysis than the guy named "Sir" (Nick Faldo) sitting next to him, Nantz found the middle ground in the Tiger Debate that so few do.

On the Friday evening of the U.S. Open, I wrote a column from Olympic stating that the demands of the Open and that particular golf course would reward only savvy veterans such as Tiger, Jim Furyk and David Toms. By Saturday evening of the U.S. Open, I wrote a column suggesting Tiger's 3-over 73 was the product of perhaps a strain or a stress in chasing Jack Nicklaus. I'll stand by both, and still acknowledge that Nantz is right. Only at the end of this year – and really, in the next couple of years of majors, pending how his competition fares – will we be able to assess Tiger 2.0.

Truth is, I think Tiger 2.0 is capable of anything. Anything goes with the new Tiger, and that's the fun of it.

Where do we go from here?

Stunningly, Tiger goes to the Greenbrier Classic.

The decision to play in West Virginia this week was made by Tiger's camp in May and indicates his laudable desire to hone his Sean Foley-coached swing and still-evolving short game before the British Open. He'll find a friendly field, too. Of the world's top 20-ranked players, only U.S. Open champ Webb Simpson, Tiger pal Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson and good ole Phil Mickelson are entered.

We'll resume our Tiger analysis – sure to be explosive, like a Fourth of July firecracker – at this same time next week, golf fans.

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