Despite doctor’s orders to rest my ankle, I couldn’t help but hike out to walk with Tiger Woods for the last five holes in the third round of the AT&T National at Congressional.
Due to the substantial damage caused by the “Derecho” storm on Friday night, tournament organizers closed the course to fans and non-essential volunteers (which, of course, was unfortunate, but in the best interest of safety).
It was already strange driving in the gates and past the range with hardly a person in sight, but I’ve seen similar scenarios at smaller PGA Tour events on a Monday. What I’d never ever seen — and may never see again — was Tiger playing a competitive round at a Tour event without a massive horde.
Would he act any differently? Would he play better? Worse? Would he let his guard down a little?
To be honest, as an observer, it was actually a pretty interesting experience. Weird, but cool. Not just watching Tiger, but other groups as well. The atmosphere was much more relaxed and casual. It felt like U.S. Open sectional qualifying. There were still ropes separating the fans (mostly family members for the rest of the field) from the players, which isn’t applicable to media, but it had the no-ropes vibe, regardless.
“Awesome, it felt like college golf,” said rookie Harris English with a wry grin, referring to playing without fans on the course. “You hit it to three feet and no one claps.”
Added playing partner Charlie Wi: “It was nice and quiet, but I wouldn’t want to do it all the time. We like fans to come and watch us.”
Jim Furyk agreed and when asked to describe the experience, he said, “Eerie, peaceful, but just not any fun. It’s awkward, more than anything else. It’s so quiet. Usually there’s a buzz or a whisper.”
Right. Of course it’d be incredibly boring if there were no fans every round, every week, but this was a unique situation that was intriguing for a day — and one that I wasn’t going to miss, sprained ankle or not.
When I caught up with Tiger’s group, there were at least 50 people following, naturally. In fact, on the 15th tee a fan carrying an AT&T bag took a picture with his phone just seconds before Tiger started his backswing, but it didn’t seem to bother him. I mean, at least he didn’t do it during his swing and I didn’t hear a click.
I decided to try walking outside of the ropes unless it was absolutely necessary for me to duck under (i.e., to cross the fairway or something). It was amazing to follow Tiger without feeling like part of a circus act, and most of all, actually be able to SEE him. The atmosphere was peaceful and it felt like we were watching him play a practice round. Except he was still extremely focused and his game face was on in full force.
Oh, the best part? There were no obnoxious “get in the hole” guys!
The telecast had gone off-air around the 14th hole, but there were cameramen catching footage and highlights of the rest of his round. I tried my best to live-tweet since there was no TV coverage.
After missing his birdie putt on No. 15, Tiger uttered, “Dammit!” You could hear it as clear as day. There was no background noise or rustling from fans trying to get in position for the next hole. He seemed to let the four-letter words fly freely, but it was casual. You know, like if he were just playing a practice round. He didn’t have to worry about cameras catching him (not that it stops him, anyway).
I kept wondering when the last time he had so few people watching him in a competitive round.
“It was very similar to what we faced ‑‑ when we play overseas in practice rounds or when we have dangerous conditions, thunderstorms blow in in the summertime and all the spectators are taken off the golf course and then we go back out and finish in the evening and have a few holes to play, and it’s usually like that,” said Woods, following his round. “I’ve played in front of people like this, but not generally for an 18‑hole competitive round.”
I followed up. C’mon, Tiger, we need specifics! College? Amateur? Junior golf?
“It’s been a while,” he said, smiling.
However, he said it wasn’t that much different because he still found cameramen getting into position to be a distraction.
“There’s a good and bad to that,” said Tiger when asked what it was like without the energy of the large crowds. “We still had an amazing amount of TV crews out there moving around in their carts and setting themselves right up in my lines and stuff like that.
“We had to move a few of those guys out there. That was still prevalent.”
On the 16th tee Woods hit more of a cut with his driver than he wanted to, but it got a good bounce off the bank and kicked to the middle of the fairway. Still, he wasn’t happy with the swing. “Dammit,” he said.
No need for earmuffs. (Hey, you should hear me when I play…)
Tiger closed with a handful of pars. Boring, but solid. He had holed out for birdie on No. 6 — which was exciting, but obviously the reaction was much less electrifying than usual — and he made three others on Nos. 1, 3 and 10. Woods posted a bogey-free, four-under 67 to move to a tie for second at six-under total and headed into Sunday trailing 54-hole leader Brendon de Jonge of Zimbabwe.
Tiger insisted the muted atmosphere didn’t impact anything and it was just another competitive round. He wanted to talk about the good shots he hit, like his chip-in on No. 6.
“I started off five back, and I needed to make a run,” said Woods in his post-round presser. “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. The shot needs to be placed correctly in the fairway and on the correct side and then fired to the correct spot on the green and then holed.
“That doesn’t change anything. What does change is when I hole a shot like I did on 6, it’s not going to be as loud today as it normally is. But that’s just the way it is. I played myself into good shape for tomorrow.”
Bo Van Pelt, who played with Tiger, also felt like it was just another regular round.
“I told Tiger that this was a Bo Van Pelt crowd, so I was used to that,” he cracked. “I was very comfortable with 10 or 15 people watching me play golf.”
(Getty Images/Rob Carr)