BETHESDA, Md. (AP) – Tiger Woods stepped out of the clubhouse at Congressional and into a strange new world of quiet Saturday. No one called out his name. No one pushed against the ropes and held out a cap for him to sign. No one was there.
And even as he moved up the leaderboard with a bogey-free round of 67, hardly anyone was around to watch him. The unofficial count when he chipped in for birdie on the sixth hole – the kind of shot that typically createst a ground-rattling roar – was 73 people.
“I've played in front of people like this,'' Woods said. “But not generally for an 18-hole competitive round.''
The third round of the AT&T National was closed to spectators and volunteers for safety reasons after a powerful wind storm left large trees upended across the golf course. Mark Russell, the PGA Tour's vice president of rules and competition, could not remember another time when a tour event did not allow fans.
“It's too dangerous out here,'' Russell said. “There's a lot of hanging limbs. There's a lot of debris. It's like a tornado came through here. It's just not safe.''
Some tournaments are used to low attendance numbers. Kapalua doesn't get big galleries because of its location on the west end of Maui. Not many go to Disney in the early part of the week. Most of them are at Sea World or the Magic Kingdom.
The AT&T National is different. It typically draws enormous crowds, especially this weekend with Woods in the hunt.
But when the third round got under way after a six-hour delay, only 16 people were in the bleachers behind the tee. Six of them were essential volunteers. The other 10 worked in a support capacity for the tournaments, such as supplying telecommunications.
The early morning was filled with the sound of chain saws as crews set out to remove more than 40 trees that had been uprooted, including a 75-foot tree that crashed across the 14th fairway. By afternoon, when the temperature began another climb toward 100, it sounded like a quiet afternoon in the park.
Brendon de Jonge of South Africa, who had a 69 to take a one-shot lead over Woods, Bo Van Pelt and S.Y. Noh of South Korea, had three birdies. That's as many people as he had in his gallery.
“I think we had three today,'' he said. “Maybe four for a couple of holes, but then he left us.''
Van Pelt, who played in the same group with Woods, jokingly told him it was a typical crowd for the Oklahoman.
“I was very comfortable with 10 or 15 people watching me play golf,'' Van Pelt said. “No, it was just nice to get it in. I think we're all fortunate that nobody got hurt out here last night. It's a credit to the grounds staff that they got this golf course ready. I'm sure if you saw pictures of what it looked like at midnight, the fact that we played golf today is a minor miracle.''
Much of the damage was caused by a weather phenomenon called a derecho (duh-RAY'-choh), a long-lived straight line wind storm that sweeps over a large area at high speed. Stewart Williams, the PGA Tour's meteorologist, said the wind reached 80 mph Friday night, and the derecho was capable of doing the same amount of damage as an F-1 tornado.
The storm itself lasted just under an hour and dumped barely more than a quarter-inch of rain on the course. But it took out power to more than 400,000 customers in the area, uprooted trees and blew away some of the smaller tents. Before workers could start cleaning up Congressional, they had to clear away four large trees blocking the entrance.
The maintenance crew worked through the night, with a shorter staff. At big PGA Tour events like the AT&T National, the course superintendent often relies on the staff from area golf courses to help out during the week. On Saturday, many of them had to tend to their own courses. Plus, the cleanup was slowed by not having power at Congressional.
“Trees are one thing, but how about hundreds of limbs – big limbs?'' Russell said.
The 11th fairway was littered with branches for some 300 yards. The practice areas were covered with debris. It was time-consuming to clear, though the crew worked from morning darkness until noon to try to get the course ready.
The more jarring images were large trees that had been cracked at the trunk, some of them crashing on top of the ropes that had lined the fairways. The 75-foot tree on the 14th was about 75 yards beyond the area where players hit their tee shots. One worker arrived with three small chain saws in the back of his cart. Given the size of the tree, it was akin to bringing a garden hose to put out a bonfire.
But by afternoon, only a 15-foot section of the trunk remained on its side.
The wood signs on nearly every tee box had been ripped from the sign posts. They were replaced in time for the third round.
Ben Curtis arrived about 5:30 a.m. to start his third round. He was to tee off at 7 a.m., the first group to play, meaning no one else was on the course. The tour switched to threesomes off both tees to try to finish the third round Saturday, meaning that Curtis and Y.E. Yang were the last group off the 10th tee at 3:10 p.m.
With no fans, there was no need for concession stands. One tent remained open, supplying sandwiches to the volunteers needed to run the tournament, such as keeping score and helping with spotting golf balls that go into rough.
Russell said the only people on the course had permanent credentials from the tour or the AT&T National.
Saturday tickets would be honored on Sunday, meaning at least one other aspect of the tournament should return to normal. With Woods only one shot out of the lead, it should be louder than ever.