AT&T National: The Ghost Town Invitational

What if you gave a golf tournament and nobody came?

That’s basically what happened to Saturday’s third round in the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. But in one of the strangest twists ever on the PGA Tour, the reason nobody came was because nobody wanted them to come.

A powerful storm with winds gusting 70 to 80 miles per hour blew through the grounds and did about as much damage as you would expect from such a thing. There were huge trees down across fairways and almost crashing into PGA Tour production trucks. There were limbs and branches and twigs and leaves strewn everywhere.

Not only was it a complete mess, it was a clearly hazardous place to be, not to mention that thousands of spectators would clearly impede the cleanup. So all Saturday tickets were made good for Sunday and the greens staff swept through the course like the winds had the night before trying to at least get the worst of it outside the ropes. Tee times were consolidated into threesomes going off the 1st and the 10th and delayed until 1 PM to get that done.

And so some of the biggest players in the game got to revert to what it felt like when they played in high school; nobody was there except for tour staff and essential volunteers. It was a new experience for Tiger too. “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.  I’ve played in front of people like this, but not generally for an 18‑hole competitive round.”

And he took great advantage of the solitude. “It was a day I was five back, try to make a run and get myself in the tournament, and I was able to do that.”

He was able to do that because he shot 4-under on the day, 6-under for the tournament, with a clean card that could have been much better had some additional putts dropped, while overnight leader, Hunter Mahan, shot 2-over.

But Woods needed one more birdie to catch the 54-hole leader, Brendon de Jonge, who shot 2-under and is 7-under for the tournament. And he had a similar reaction to there not being a gallery. “[There was] no buzz and it was hard to get the adrenaline going, kind of felt like you were playing a Tuesday practice round or a qualifier.  But I obviously understand why they had to do it.  But it was definitely a little bit different.  Maybe a little bit tougher just because it’s not what we’re used to.”

And there was this funny exchange:

What was the fewest people you’ve played in front of before today?

One probably.

Did you have more than one today?

I think we had three today, yep.  Maybe four for a couple holes, but then he left us, as well.

Bo Van Pelt played in Tiger’s group Saturday, also shot 4-under with a clean card and will be paired with him and de Jonge Sunday. But Van Pelt said he felt like he got cheated with no gallery. “You know, I think the best part was that it was just about the golf.  Sometimes it’s just — I’m sure it’s probably enjoyable for Tiger.  It was probably like a home round for him to where he could just go play golf and no real distractions out there.”

“I’d say the worst part, I felt like I got cheated on 6 when he chipped that ball in because with a normal crowd, that would have got really loud.  So I’m disappointed I didn’t get to hear that cheer when he made that flop shot.  Because it’s fun; you take energy from that.  I remember a couple years ago, we were in one of the last groups at Memorial, and the crowd was huge, and I think we both ended up finishing third, and it was great.  It was great to play in that atmosphere.  That’s why you practice.  You take energy from that, and it helps you focus.”

And finally, in addition to the fact that it looks like they’ll get the tournament in tomorrow on schedule, another nice story belongs to Billy Hurley III who had the low round of the day at 5-under and now sits just two strokes back of de Jonge.

You will recall that Hurley is the Naval Academy graduate who dutifully served his country with ten years of his life — four at the Academy and six on active duty — and then came back to competitive golf late in life.

He earned his spurs on the Nationwide Tour in 2011 finishing in the top 25 money winners, but his performance on the PGA Tour this year has been a settling in process. He’s only made 5 of 17 cuts so far and a meager $85,100. That’s about a tenth of what he’ll need to keep his card for next year.

So posting these kinds of numbers on a tough course like Congressional, in stifling heat and the aftermath of Friday night’s storm is quite a feather in his cap. If he can just keep it going on Sunday, it will be a real nice addition to the cash he needs to keep his card in 2013. Not to mention the confidence it will surely bring to his game.

The Golf Channel live coverage begins at 1 PM Eastern and CBS picks up the finish at 3 PM.

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