When Tiger Woods stepped to the first tee Saturday afternoon at Congressional Country Club’s Blue Course, Master Gunnery Sgt. Anthony Russell, a U.S. Marine, did what he had arrived to do. He bellowed Woods’s name — “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome . . .” — in a hear-it-for-miles baritone. Woods, who has been introduced to hundreds of galleries that have stood thousands strong, dutifully lifted his hand to the brim of his cap in acknowledgment.
And at that moment, the five dozen or so people gathered to see Woods begin play in the third round of the AT&T National — many of them staff members of Woods’s own foundation, which stages the event — clapped. They knew they would be the only noise. They knew they would be the only support. And on a bizarre day at Congressional — in which a PGA Tour event was staged, but very few were around to prove it — any applause was amplified and appreciated, because there were so few to provide it.
“Eerie, peaceful, but just not any fun,” said Jim Furyk, who has spent the past two decades on tour. “It’s awkward, more than anything else. It’s so quiet. Usually there’s a buzz or a whisper.”
The only buzz, virtually all day, was of chainsaws. Because the violent thunderstorms of Friday night felled at least 40 trees on Congressional’s grounds, tournament organizers made the decision early Saturday morning — before they even knew if they could hold the third round — to close the course to fans and most of the 2,000 volunteers used to conduct the event. The debris was just too significant, and potentially too hazardous, with broken limbs across the course hanging delicately, as if waiting to fall on passersby.
Thus, the odd scene: a virtually vacant course conducting what should be an intense competition.
“I don’t know when the last one was, when there was a competitive round without fans,” said Greg McLaughlin, the tournament director and the CEO of Woods’s foundation. “So it is difficult [to take that step]. But from a safety standpoint, it made sense because you’re talking about 25-30,000 people, and then you’re talking about 2,000 volunteers. You have to be so far out in front of that.”
Who remained: The 80 players who made the cut; their caddies; the media; some wives and girlfriends and family; the staffs from Woods’s foundation, Congressional and the PGA Tour, some of whom were bleary-eyed; and small groups of volunteers deemed essential to conducting the event. Tee times were delayed nearly six hours, and when George McNeill stood over his first drive of the day at 1 p.m. — the first man to begin play — 16 people sat in the stands behind the first tee. The loudest sounds were the chirping of birds.
“There was a couple times, you open a water bottle or something and it kind of fizzes,” said Brian Harman, who played in McNeill’s group, “and you’re like, ‘Man, I’m used to that being kind of drowned out.’ It was definitely different.”
When McLaughlin raced to the course around 11 p.m. Friday, he found the front entrance blocked by what he thought was one large tree. Turns out, there were four. He tried to enter behind the second green, near a maintenance area. Another tree. He went behind the sixth tee. More trees. Finally, he called for help just to navigate the fallen forest.
About 10 members of Woods’s staff worked overnight, aiding the cleanup effort led by the staff of Mike Giuffre, Congressional’s director of golf course maintenance. One huge tree fell across the 14th fairway. Another blocked the 18th fairway. Mark Russell, the PGA Tour’s vice president of rules and competition, called the 11th fairway “unbelievable” due to how much debris covered it, a blanket obscuring the grass.
“It was amazing today that we got it in,” said Woods, who shot 67 and sits at 6 under par, one behind leader Brendon de Jonge. “The staff, maintenance crew, all the volunteers picking up twigs and getting everything cleared up so we could give it a go today was an amazing effort.”
By mid-morning, Congressional had already begun to look like Congressional again, at least where the golf course was concerned. But the spectator areas, even after play began, were littered with stray limbs.
“Everything that was inside the ropes was thrown outside the ropes,” Russell said.
Still, organizers are prepared to welcome fans for Sunday’s final round. Gates are scheduled to open at 9 a.m., with play beginning — in threesomes, from both the first and 10th tees — at 11 a.m. Tickets from Saturday’s round will be honored Sunday; unused Saturday tickets will be eligible for a refund.
At least, then, there should be some normalcy. As Woods played a chip shot from behind the sixth green Saturday, a gallery of several dozen fans, volunteers and workers followed along. When the ball shot up from the rough, settled onto the green and then rolled in the cup, they burst into applause. But this was far from the kind of roar normally reserved for such moments, and Woods’s fist pump was no dramatic upper cut.
“I’m disappointed I didn’t get to hear that cheer,” said Bo Van Pelt, who played with Woods and is now tied with him.
Indeed, when Woods’s group played the ninth hole, the final threesome made its way up No. 7, which runs parallel. It included de Jonge and Hunter Mahan, both trying to fend off Woods. The number of fans following the leaders: zero.
“I told Tiger: That was a Bo Van Pelt crowd,” Van Pelt said jokingly.
And for those playing in front of, well, no one?
“You make a nice putt,” said Billy Hurley III, a pro from Annapolis, “and you’re like, ‘Okay, we’ll move on.’ ”
Furyk made one putt, and a friend of one of his playing partners, Hunter Haas, was the only one there to clap. Instinctively, Furyk waved in acknowledgment.
“And then I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’ ” he said.
What he was doing: competing in a tournament at golf’s highest level in circumstances like no one can remember.
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