Jul 1, 2012 12:45 AM by CNN
BETHESDA, MD - Saturday at Congressional was not the first time Tiger Woods has played before so few fans.
There were those 6 a.m. practice rounds at the British Open. Or the occasional PGA Tour event where fans were evacuated because of a thunderstorm and hardly anyone returned at twilight when play resumed. There surely was the odd junior event he played when he was 8.
But teeing off in the late afternoon at the AT&T National, on a steamy but sun-filled day on a fabled course in a golf-mad area like Washington?
Woods had the largest crowd of the day, even though it never topped 100 people. Brendon de Jonge, who had a 2-under 69 to take a one-shot lead, had as many birdies (three) as people in his gallery on a strange, silent Saturday 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. One shot behind were Woods (67), Bo Van Pelt (67) and S.Y. Noh (69).
De Jonge, a 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. 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."
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 last time it was held at Congressional in 209.
Billy Hurley, the Navy veteran who grew up in the area, had a 66 and was two shots back, along with 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."
No one was complaining. They were playing. And it didn't take long for them to realize why no one was there.
Just walking up the first fairway, there were piles of branches off to the side. Behind the second tee, an enormous tree - or what was left of it - was split in half. On the 14th hole, a 75-foot tree had crashed across the fairway. When the round was under way, only a 15-foot section of the trunk remained on its side.
De Jonge made the adjustment quickly.
He 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 obviously 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."
"I think we had three today," he said. "Maybe four for a couple of holes, but then he left us."
Mahan was lining up a putt on the second hole when two people were walking up the cart path behind him, forcing caddies to ask them to stop. CBS Sports analyst David Feherty described it best when he said, "They have two people watching, and they're not even watching."
Woods was worth seeing, at least on the front nine.
He holed an 8-foot birdie putt to start his round and got off to a quick start by taking on five putts in the opening six holes - a short bunker save on No. 2, a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 3, a wedge from 76 yards to tap-in range for par on the fourth, an easy up-and-down from just off the green on No. 5, and then his biggest moment.
After missing the green to the left on the par-5 sixth, he had an uphill lie in buried grass and holed out for an unlikely birdie. Woods offered a moderate fist pump as the gallery - they numbered 73 at that point, not counting TV crews and other media - cheered.
Woods said his mild response was more about the day of the week than the decibel levels from the gallery.
"I don't really get that fired up on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday," he said. "I think for me, I just understand I still have so far to go. It's Saturday. What did I have, 20-odd holes to go? So it's a long ways to go."
But at least he cut into the five-shot deficit he faced at the start of the day, as did Van Pelt. The Oklahoman ran off four birdies in five-hole stretch to close out the front nine, then scrambled for a few solid pars, including a tough bunker save on the 17th, to get into the final group.
It's another chance to play with Woods, this time with a trophy at stake, and this time with some noise.
"I feel like I got cheated on 6 when he chipped that ball in because a normal crowd, that would have got really loud," Van Pelt said. "So I'm disappointed I didn't get to hear that cheer when he made that flop shot."