Saturday was one of the most surreal scenes in Tiger Woods’ professional golf career. As he was making a run at the lead in the AT&T National, a spectacular flop shot for a birdie was met with polite applause from a few dozen followers. Three groups back, a literal few were following second-round leader, Hunter Mahan.
The dearth of spectators at Congressional Country Club in the third round of the AT&T National was the work of Mother Nature. A combination of storm damage, heat, and the possibility of another storm convinced officials to take the unusual step of barring fans from the course. Most of those in the “gallery” were tournament personnel in matching golf shirts.
Woods made the most of his fan-free day, firing a 4-under-par 67 to climb the leaderboard. He trails former Virginia Tech star Brendon de Jonge of Zimbabwe by one stroke.
“I’ve played in front of people like this, but not generally for an 18-hole competitive round,” Woods said. “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.”
Woods and de Jonge will make an interesting pair in Sunday’s final threesome, which tees off at 1:15 p.m.. The toned, fit Woods (6-1, 170) boasted of his fitness on Friday when temperatures hit 100 degrees, while de Jonge (6-0, 230) joked about his and his well-rounded physique. While Woods has 73 PGA Tour wins, de Jonge, 31, is seeking his first. This is the first time in his career that he holds the lead heading into the final round.
“Winning here would be that much more special, obviously, being a huge Virginia Tech contingent around here,” de Jonge said. “Obviously I’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow.”
Also in contention is Bo Van Pelt, who played with Woods and matched his 67 to trail by a stroke. South Korean Seung-Yul Noh (69) also is a stroke back. Hunter Mahan (73) and Billy Hurley (66) trail by two shots. Hurley, a Leesburg native and Naval Academy graduate, was seemingly a nice one-day story when he shot a 69 and led for some of the first round. He followed up with a 73, but on Saturday he fired the best round of the day.
“I just hit more fairways today,” Hurley said. “I think I only hit like seven fairways yesterday, so it gets tough to play out of the rough out here for sure. Today I haven’t added it up but I didn’t miss many.”
With few spectators, Saturday was a strange day full of humorous scenes. As players teed off for the round, they were introduced as usual, and many waved to the imaginary crowd. After holing out at No. 1 Robert Garrigus, celebrated dramatically to the sound of silence.
“There was only one guy following us,” Jim Furyk said. “It’s a lot more fun when the fans are out,”
As Furyk’s group finished up and walked off the green at No. 9, the lone fan clapped in appreciation.
“Is that all you got?” teased Ricky Barnes.
“It was like an empty-course practice round, with everybody following another group,” Barnes said moments later.
Tickets for Saturday will be honored for Sunday’s final round, which will tee off in threesomes at 11:10 a.m., allowing for further cleanup of the spectator areas. The start of the third round was pushed back to 1 p.m., allowing cleanup crews to make the course playable.
The day belonged to Woods, who started with a birdie, then made a 25-footer for another birdie at No. 3. At No. 6 Woods looked like he could drop a stoke as he flew the green, leaving himself with a delicate flop shot to a tight, downhill pin. But Woods’ shot rattled into the cup for a birdie. At No. 10, Woods’ 15-foot birdie putt circled the cup and dropped in.
Shots like this from Woods are often met with roars. Instead it was a few hoots from the 50 or so spectators who enjoyed their rare opportunity to see and hear Woods up close.
“It was probably Tiger’s favorite day of the year,” Barnes joked.