BETHESDA, Md. – A little myth busting.
If a 100-year-old tree falls across Congressional’s 14th fairway no one hears it, but when Tiger Woods cut a swath across the baked-out Blue Course on Saturday with the absolute minimum of eyeballs on him the entire golf world sat up and took notice.
On a surreal day when cheers were replaced by chainsaws the guy in the green shirt made magic, not that many actually witnessed the AT&T National host roll his way to a 25-putt 67 that leaves him a stroke behind third-round leader Brendon de Jonge and closing on his second victory in as many starts at Congressional.
But Saturday wasn’t so much about what Woods shot as it was what it took to set the stage for his heroics and the precious few who actually watched it.
Late Friday a storm blew through Washington D.C., toppling trees and leaving more than a million homes without power.
The damage to Congressional was extensive and crews worked through the night to ready the layout for Round 3 play but officials never felt comfortable allowing fans onto the property so Saturday’s proceedings were something of a private affair.
As Woods readied for his third round your scribe asked one Tour type when was the last time he played without a gallery? “Yesterday,” he deadpanned. Fair enough, but Woods’ reality, at least between the ropes, is always inside the public domain.
As chainsaws and wood chippers echoed in the background, a threesome that included Greg Owen, George McNeill and Brian Harman teed off in the first group to begin what Tour officials say was the first tournament round closed to the public in recent memory.
After McNeill was announced to the tee first, which drew a round of strange looks considering the low-key nature of the event, he was forced to back off his tee shot as the cleanup effort buzzed around him.
“I knew it,” he laughed.
Who knew Woods, who has ignited galleries with his on-course theatrics for more than a decade, would be just as prolific in relative solitude?
The storm that whipped winds to 70 mph and ravaged the area is called a “derecho,” a native American word meaning straight. On Saturday Woods was wielding something of a derecho putter, which he established early with five consecutive one-putts to begin his day.
Statistically he’s posted three carbon copies on the Blue Course, 11 of 18 greens in regulation and 8 of 14 fairways hit each of the first three rounds. The difference on Day 3 was his putter, which dropped key par saves at Nos. 4, 14 and 17 and birdie putts at Nos. 1, 3, 6 and 10.
“I was fighting back and trying to make a run and I was able to do that,” said Woods, who won the 2009 AT&T National the last time this event was played at Congressional.
But if his putter was the meat and potatoes of Woods’ round, it was a delicate flop shot from left of the sixth green that was the highlight of day. Faced with a difficult par save after his approach bounced hard off of a ridge and ran into the rough Woods banged the shot off the flag for an unlikely birdie.
Quintessential Woods, only without the crowd-pleasing fist pump and cheers. It was just like Augusta National, only without the pine trees and roars.
“I felt like I got cheated on (No.) 6 when he chipped that ball in because normal crowds, that would have got really loud,” said Bo Van Pelt, who was paired with Woods on Saturday. “I didn't get to hear that cheer when he made that flop shot. Because it's fun; you take energy from that.”
Woods, however, was just as well with the serenity.
The host had an idea things were going to be interesting when he peeked out of his hotel window late Friday and “the (water) fountain, it's normally a fountain, but it looked like someone had turned the fire hose on.”
At 4 a.m. his cellphone began buzzing with messages from the tournament staff and when he arrived just past lunchtime to prepare for his round crews were still turning large, felled trees into mulch.
“I told Tiger that was a Bo Van Pelt crowd, so I was used to that,” Van Pelt smiled. “I was very comfortable with 10 or 15 people watching me play golf.”
Tour officials were confident the cleanup effort would be far enough along to allow spectators on the golf course for Sunday’s final round, setting the stage for a Tiger crowd and Woods’ third victory of 2012.
It would be a return to normalcy on many levels, particularly after Woods charged back into the hunt with no crowds and surprisingly little television coverage (CBS ended its telecast of the third round just as Woods was making his way around the back nine).
Here’s another myth that seems destined for busting: If Woods continues to putt the way he did on “Solitude Saturday” the competitive dominance that some figured would never return would seem closer than ever.