Tiger Woods surged up the leader board on Saturday at the AT&T National, firing a 4-under-par 67 to move within a shot of the lead at an eerily hushed and nearly deserted Congressional Country Club the morning following a severe storm that left portions of the Blue Course strewn with tree limbs and other debris.
The best round of the tournament for Woods left the 14-time major champion on the heels of 54-hole leader Brendon de Jonge, who got to 8 under before giving back a stroke with bogey at No. 14 and finished with a 2-under 69.
By that time, Woods was in cruise control, parring his final eight holes to recoup almost all of a five-shot deficit at the midway point of the tournament he hosts. Only a sprinkling of fans, though, witnessed the third-round charge because PGA Tour officials, citing safety concerns, would not permit fans and most volunteers to come onto the storm-ravaged grounds.
“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,” said Woods, who finished in a three-way tie with playing partner Bo Van Pelt and South Korea’s Seung-Yul Noh. “The shot needs to be placed correctly in the fairway and on the correct side of the green and then holed.”
Woods was accomplishing just that, one-putting each of his first five holes during which he carded two birdies and no bogeys. He needed five putts in all to complete his first six holes.
Woods summoned some short-game wizardry on the par-5 sixth measuring 555 yards. His approach from roughly 115 yards landed on the green but took one bounce and rolled into the rough behind the hole, leaving an unforgiving lie and little real estate coming back.
The ball came to rest on an upslope against the grain of the grass, and the slightest mis-hit could have left a lengthy putt for par. Woods, though, didn’t need to remove his putter from his bag after his chip landed softly, bounced gently one more time and rolled the next foot and a half in to the hole for birdie.
“This was a Saturday round,” Woods said. “It was a chance to play myself into a tournament.”
Woods’s iron play continued to complement his sure putter, with the par-3 10th no better example. At one of the Blue Course’s signature holes, Woods began his back nine by stinging an iron to the second level of the undulating green, then watched as the ball trickled down the slope within eight feet of the 218-yard hole.
With another confident pass of his putter, Woods moved to 4 under for his round and 6 under for the tournament, leaving him in one stroke behind de Jonge, who played college golf at Virginia Tech and remains good friends with Hokies football coach Frank Beamer.
There was a moment of uncertainty at the end of Woods’s putt, when the ball spun around the entire circumference of the cup before dropping. That result during most any other competitive round would have generated rousing applause. Not on Saturday.
“I’m sure it’s probably enjoyable for Tiger,” Van Pelt said. “It was probably like a home round for him to where he could just go play golf and no real distractions.”
Like Van Pelt, de Jonge doesn’t command large galleries, although over the first two days there were a healthy number of fans walking the grounds in Virginia Tech gear. De Jonge said he fed off that energy en route to a 36-hole total of 137.
His third round included birdies and Nos. 2 and 6, another birdie at 12 and, by his estimation, a three-person gallery comprising family and friends, the only spectators in addition to media allowed on the course.
“Winning here would be that much more special, as well, obviously being a huge Virginia Tech contingent around here would be wonderful,” de Jonge said, “and it’s obviously a great tournament with a great field, so that would be a good feather in your cap, but I’ve got a lot of work to do tomrorrow.”