Tiger Woods played in front of likely the smallest `crowd’ of his professional career as he closed to within a stroke of the lead in Saturday’s third round of the AT&T National.
Woods had a 4-under 67 to share second placed with Bo Van Pelt (67) and Seung-Yul Noh (69). They were a stroke behind Brendon de Jonge, whose round of 69 had as many birdies (three) as people in his gallery on a strange, silent day at Congressional.
A violent wind storm overnight that toppled dozens of trees and littered the course with limbs forced tournament officials to keep spectators and all but the essential volunteers away from Congressional for the third round. Considering the amount of debris, it was amazing they even played.
”I’ve played in front of people like this,” Woods said. ”But not generally for an 18-hole competitive round.”
De Jonge was steady in the sweltering conditions for a third straight round in the 60s, which gave his first 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour.
The South African, going for his first PGA Tour win, made his final birdie on the 12th hole with a wedge out of the rough that climbed over a ridge and settled about 12 feet behind the cup. It was worthy of applause, but there was only one person in the gallery to see it – Kandi Mahan, the wife of Hunter Mahan.
Indeed, this was a day like few others on the PGA Tour.
A few volunteers, tournament staff and club members tagged along after Woods, and provided about the only noise of the round. They watched him and Van Pelt get off to a quick start, and then match pars on the back nine to get close to the lead.
”I told Tiger that was a Bo Van Pelt crowd, so I was used to that,” Van Pelt said. ”I was very comfortable with 10 or 15 people watching me play golf. No, it was just nice to get it in.
”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.”
De Jonge was at 7-under 206 and will play in the final group with Van Pelt and Woods, who is going for his third win of the year. Woods won the AT&T National the previous time it was held at Congressional in 2009.
Billy Hurley had a 66 and was two shots back, along with second-round leader Mahan, who stumbled to a 73.
Sunday might be a return to normal, at least with the noise, especially with Woods in the final group.
The final round will be threesomes going off both sides, giving the grounds crew even more time to clean up the course. For Saturday, it did well to put chain saws to the toppled trees and collects the hundreds of branches scattered across the fairways and pile them up outside the ropes.
It was the debris, along with some loose limbs, that led officials to turn back spectators for the third round. The Saturday tickets will be honored Saturday, which could make Congressional even more raucous.
The third round was anything but that.
”It was like being on the Nationwide Tour again,” Kevin Chappell said after a 72 that left him 4 over.
The last time Jim Furyk played on a Saturday, he had thousands of people lining the fairways of Olympic Club in the U.S. Open. What a contrast to Congressional.
”It was peaceful, but just odd,” Furyk said. ”It’s fun to get fan interaction, and hear cheers when you hit a good shot. We had more people on the Nike Tour than now.”
De Jonge hit a 3-iron into 2 feet on the par-3 second hole, the toughest of the day at Congressional, and kept it simple after that. He added a two-putt birdie on the par-5 sixth, made his last birdie on the 12th and dropped one shot coming in on the 14th.
”There was just no buzz, and it was hard to get the adrenaline going,” he said. ”Kind of felt like you were playing a Tuesday practice round or a qualifier. But I understand why they had to do it.”
Asked the smallest gallery he had played before in the past, de Jonge smiled and said, ”One, probably.”
We had three today,” he said. ”Maybe four for a couple of holes, but then he left us.”