It only took a glimpse of the gallery following Tiger Woods in Saturday’s third round of the AT&T National to figure out that something was amiss at Congressional Country Club.
There were about 50 people -- media included -- watching a player who normally attracts thousands.
“I told Tiger that it was a Bo Van Pelt crowd, so I was used to that,” Van Pelt joked after the round. “I was very comfortable with 10 or 15 people watching me play golf.”
Weather permitting, it should be much different for Sunday’s final round. The fans who were not allowed on the grounds after Friday’s massive storm will likely return, mostly to see if Woods can win for a third time this year and the 74th victory of his legendary career.
Despite playing in front of crowds that he compared in size to those at practice rounds in foreign tournaments, while navigating at least one shot over some fallen trees, Woods played his way into the final group Sunday.Starting the round five strokes behind 36-hole leader Hunter Mahan, Woods shot a 4-under par 67 to move within one stroke of third-round leader Brendon de Jonge, whose 2-under par 69 gave him a total of 7-under 206.
Woods and Van Pelt, who also shot 67, along with Seung-Yul Noh of Korea, are one stroke behind. Former Navy player Billy Hurley III made up the most ground, shooting a day’s best 5-under par 66. Hurley is tied with Mahan, who struggled with a 2-over 73, at 5-under 208.
“Whether we have thousands of people or we have a small handful of people out there, it doesn’t change the execution of the shot,” said Woods, who climbed into contention with four birdies on his first 10 holes. “That wasn’t something I was thinking about out there. I was just trying to play.”
Woods admitted that the only difference was in the reaction to one of his shots. When he made a 35-foot birdie putt on the par-4 third hole, or holed out a 40-foot flop shot for birdie from the rough behind the par-5 sixth, there was barely any noise.
Certainly not the kind Woods is used to hearing.
“When I hole a shot like I did on 6, it’s not going to be as loud today as it normally is,” said Woods, adding that the flop shot he holed to help win at Memorial last month was more difficult. “I played myself in good shape for tomorrow.”
So did Hurley, who put himself in position to win his first PGA Tour event. The 30-year-old rookie, whose career was put on hold as he completed his five-year military commitment, said Saturday’s atmosphere was “sort of peaceful out there and easy to get around.”
Given the damage that was evident throughout the course -- including the remnants of more than 40 trees that were destroyed during the storm -- it was remarkable that the round was completed. Or that it even started in the first place.
According to Mark Russell, the tour’s vice president for competition, course superintendent Michael Giuffre and his staff of “about 50" worked through the night, starting by clearing away two large trees that blocked the entrance to the club.
“I can’t tell you what a great job those guys did,” Russell said during an early afternoon news conference. “When I came here this morning, I didn’t think that we had a chance to play. Trees down in fairways, cart paths blocked, just trees everywhere down, just right at the base.
“It was like a tornado went through here. It might have happened.”
Aside from Van Pelt’s comment, the lack of fans was greeted with humor by the players.
George McNeil, the first player to tee off on the opening hole, feigned distraction after his name was announced, as if the 10 people sitting in the grandstand behind the tee had created the type of noise to break his concentration.
After making an early birdie, Dustin Johnson dramatically raised his putter as if to acknowledge the crowd. The only problem was that there was no crowd, just a couple of marshals standing behind the green.
“It was actually really strange out there,” said de Jonge, a 31-year-old from Zimbabwe who played at Virginia Tech and is looking for his first PGA Tour win. “It took a little while to get used to. It’s nice to have people out there and get the buzz and kind of feed off adrenaline. Obviously we didn’t have that today.”
They will likely have it Sunday, when the fans who had tickets to Saturday’s round will be allowed in free and will join those hoping to see Woods pass fellow legend Jack Nicklaus for total wins after tying him at Memorial.Asked about his confidence level going into Sunday compared to Memorial and his first win this year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Woods said, “I’ve been playing well. I played well in those two events and I’ve played well in this event. It’s a bunched leaderboard.”
And a battered course, one that might get another round of rain and wind overnight.
“That little spot between [holes] 2 and 4, some of those trees were down in the middle there,” Van Pelt said. “Those were trees that have probably been around 100 years. They’ve survived a lot of storms. The fact that one knocked them down just shows you how powerful it was that Mother Nature is no joke when she wants to rear up.”
Sort of like a certain golfer in the final group Sunday.