It was a tough, strange third round Saturday in the $6.5 million AT&T National at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md.
A fierce overnight thunderstorm brought 70 mph winds that downed 40 trees and scattered debris throughout the course, causing a nearly six-hour delay Saturday morning so clean-up crews could make Congressional playable. Safety concerns forced tournament officials to close the course to spectators and volunteers, a rarity on the PGA Tour. The only applause players received was from caddies, fellow competitors, employees and club members.
An estimated 500,000 people in the surrounding area suffered power outages.
"It's too dangerous out here," said Mark Russell, the PGA Tour's vice president of rules and competition. "There's a lot of hanging limbs. There's a lot of debris. It's like a tornado came through here. It's just not safe."
Players were put in threesomes instead of twosomes and sent off on both nines. Tiger Woods began third-round play at 2:40 p.m. ET off the first tee with Bo Van Pelt and Cameron Tringale, trailing 36-hole leader Hunter Mahan by five strokes.
Somehow an estimated 75 people, comprised mostly of volunteers and media, found their way out to follow Woods and his group. Not that Russell was surprised.
"It's difficult to keep people away from Tiger Woods," he said.
Woods didn't disappoint. Playing in 90-degree heat for the third straight day, he shot a bogey-free, 4-under-par 67 to climb into a three-way tie for second place at 6-under 207, one stroke behind leader Brendon de Jonge. Tiger, who won this event in 2009, will try for his third PGA Tour victory of the season on Sunday, when spectators will be allowed back on the course.
"Well, it was amazing that we even got it in," said Woods, the tournament host. "The staff, maintenance crew, all the volunteers, picking up twigs and getting everything cleared out so we could actually give it a go today was an amazing effort. They burned the candle at both ends pretty hard just to get us out there."
Weird as it was not to play in front of massive galleries, Tiger said it didn't really faze him.
"You know, that wasn't something I was thinking about out there," he said. "I was just trying to play. This was a Saturday round. It's a chance to play myself back into a tournament. Whether there's a gallery or not, it doesn't change the execution of the golf shot. Ball still needs to be placed correctly around the golf course, and I did that most of the day."
Tiger got off to a strong start by making birdie at the 402-yard, par-4 first hole, where he hit a nice approach shot about 12 feet from the cup and made the putt. At the 208-yard, par-3 second, he pulled a 5-iron into the left greenside bunker, then blasted to within two feet of the hole and saved par.
At the 466-yard, par-4 third, Woods hit a 3-wood into the first cut of rough on the left and hit a 9-iron from 187 yards 34 feet below the cup. Tiger poured in the birdie putt, the ball doing a victory lap around the hole.
Woods made a terrific par save at the 470-yard, par-4 fourth, the second-hardest hole on the course. He pulled a driver way left into heavy rough and had no choice but to gouge a wedge back into the fairway. He knocked his third shot from 83 yards within two feet of the hole and salvaged par.
Tiger hit a nice 3-wood down the fairway at the 413-yard, par-4 fifth. Faced with 137 yards to the flag, he slightly miscalculated his approach shot, the ball skipping over the back of the putting surface into the rough. Woods intentionally bladed a wedge for his third shot and judged it perfectly, the ball stopping a foot away from the hole to set up his fifth consecutive one-putt.
At the 555-yard, par-5 sixth, Tiger hooked his tee shot way right near a fallen tree and punched a wedge back into the fairway. With 116 yards left to the back-left pin, he pull-hooked a wedge over the back of the green, and the ball wound up sitting down in trampled rough. Woods had little green to work with, but he hit a beautiful flop shot that tracked into the center of the cup for an unlikely birdie.
"I drew a decent lie, not a great lie, and I was just trying to leave myself a putt, just throw it up there and somehow keep it on the top shelf," he said. "If I can leave it on the top shelf, I can make it, and it went in."
With only five putts through the first six holes, Tiger hit his tee shot at the 175-yard, par-3 seventh 35 feet left of the pin and recorded his first two-putt of the side, leaving the big-breaking, left-to-right putt a foot short of the cup.
"I left myself in the correct spots," said Woods. "Like at 2, the miss had to be left, and it had to be short, and I left myself just an easy bunker shot. The good one was at 4. I hit a terrible tee shot."
Woods gave himself two more good birdie opportunities on the front nine, but couldn't take advantage of them. At the 354-yard, par-4 eighth, he missed a 15-foot birdie putt. At the 636-yard, par-5 ninth, he hit a gorgeous sand wedge from 111 yards six feet above the pin, but missed the downhill, right-to-left putt. Still, he made the turn in 3-under 33.
Moving to the 181-yard, par-3 10th, Woods flushed an 8-iron over the top of the front-right pin, and the ball trickled back down a slope nine feet behind the hole. The birdie putt was slick, but Tiger snuck it into the cup, the ball doing a 360 before disappearing.
Woods then rattled off eight consecutive pars on the back nine to shoot a 1-under 35.
For the third day in a row, Tiger hit 61 percent of the greens in regulation and found 57 percent of the fairways. His putting has improved each round; Woods used 25 on Saturday.
On Sunday, Tiger tees off at 1:15 p.m. ET with de Jonge and Van Pelt. More thunderstorms are expected overnight, which could make Congressional play easier.
"It's a bunched leaderboard," Woods said. "I'm happy the way I played, but we're supposed to get another storm in tonight, and if we do, the golf course will be a little bit softer tomorrow. Looking at the (pin) dots, I think guys are going to shoot some good rounds."