Tiger Woods was joking on the range that if he got fined for conduct unbecoming on this day, he’d know there was a conspiracy at PGA Tour headquarters against him.
That’s because — for the first time in modern tour history — there would be no fans watching the action to see any bad behavior.
Fans were not allowed into the AT&T National on Saturday after a devastating storm late on Friday night wreaked havoc and left Congressional Country Club unsafe, in the judgment of officials.
So Woods played in front of his smallest gallery, probably since his Urkel days at Stanford.
“It’s been a while,” he said.
It was a scene so surreal that when he drained an eight-footer for birdie on the opening hole, instead of the customary roar came a smattering of applause from a few dozen volunteers and members of Woods’ foundation staff.
“I’ve played in front of people like this, but not generally for an 18-hole competitive round,” Woods said.
Woods played with Bo Van Pelt, who took a look around and didn’t think it was strange at all.
“I told Tiger that was a Bo Van Pelt crowd,” he said.
“I was very comfortable with 10 or 15 people watching me play golf.”
At least they had a gallery.
Most of the groups on Saturday played as if it were an anonymous club championship somewhere.
At one point, as the Woods gallery sauntered to the next hole, Nick Watney stood on a nearby tee and no one at all was watching.
"It was peaceful, but just odd," said Jim Furyk. "It’s fun to get fan interaction, and hear cheers when you hit a good shot."
The AT&T National was suddenly more the AT&T Local.
But despite the family and friends gallery, it should be noted that Woods — who believes he’s the most fined player in PGA Tour history — did let out an expletive on the fourth tee after pulling his drive into the left rough.
Yet even if someone does report him he’ll probably happily pay the fine as he wedged out of the spinach to 75 yards and hit a sublime lob wedge to a few feet and saved par.
It was that kind of Saturday for Woods, where most things went his way.
He finished with a four-under par 67 and is perched for what might be his third win of the season; he’s just one shot off Zimbabwean Brendon de Jonge’s 54-hole lead.
The reason for the good score was primarily a stellar short game; ironic given it’s been much-maligned recently.
But on a hot, steamy Saturday afternoon in the shadow of the nation’s capitol, the old Tiger magic was back.
After six holes he’d hit just two greens in regulation and yet was three under par — needing just five putts — after spectacularly chipping in from the back of the sixth.
“I felt like I got cheated on six when he chipped that ball in because normal crowd, that would have got really loud,” said Van Pelt.
Ironically, the chip-in suddenly had Woods hitting the ball better: but not making the putts he was making earlier for par.
Although he hit it close on the first hole, his other early birdie on the third came from 35 feet.
On the second, he got up-and-down out of the bunker, prompting one wag to wonder if he’d changed the sand overnight given his dislike for this sand and his curious statement on Thursday that his wedge was not designed for the kind of sand they have at Congressional.
On the back nine, Woods spurned chances to go deeper — principally, a four-footer for birdie on the 16th that didn’t touch the hole — though it’s true, too, that he saved par several times.
Not surprisingly, he liked where he stood, whether his galleries were swollen or not.
“I started off five back, and I needed to make a run,” he 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.