Play under way, but fans out

BETHESDA, Md. -- Tiger Woods stepped out of the clubhouse at Congressional and into a strange new world of quiet Saturday. No one called out his name. No one pushed against the ropes and held out a cap for him to sign. No one was there.

The third round of the AT&T National was closed to spectators and volunteers for safety reasons after a powerful wind storm left large trees upended across the golf course. Mark Russell, the PGA Tour's vice president of rules and competition, could not remember another time when a tour event did not allow fans.

"It's too dangerous out here," Russell said. "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."

Some tournaments are used to low attendance numbers. Kapalua doesn't get big galleries because of its location on the west end of Maui. Not many go to Disney in the early part of the week. Most of them are at Sea World or the Magic Kingdom.

The AT&T National is different. It typically draws enormous crowds, especially this weekend with Woods in the hunt only five shots behind.

But when the third round got under way after a six-hour delay, only 16 people were in the bleachers behind the tee. Six of them were essential volunteers. The other 10 worked in a support capacity for the tournaments, such as supplying telecommunications.

The early morning was filled with the sound of chain saws as crews set out to remove more than 40 trees that had been uprooted, including a 75-foot tree that crashed across the 14th fairway. By afternoon, when the temperature began another climb toward 100, it sounded like a quiet afternoon in the park.

Much of the damage was caused by a weather phenomenon called a derecho (duh-RAY'-choh), a long-lived straight line wind storm that sweeps over a large area at high speed. Stewart Williams, the PGA Tour's meteorologist, said the wind reached 80 mph Friday night, and the derecho was capable of doing the same amount of damage as an F-1 tornado.

The storm itself lasted just under an hour and dumped barely more than a quarter-inch of rain on the course. But it took out power to more than 400,000 customers in the area, uprooted trees and blew away some of the smaller tents. Before workers could start cleaning up Congressional, they had to clear away four large trees blocking the entrance.

The maintenance crew worked through the night, with a shorter staff. At big PGA Tour events like the AT&T National, the course superintendent often relies on the staff from area golf courses to help out during the week. On Saturday, many of them had to tend to their own courses. Plus, the cleanup was slowed by not having power at Congressional.

"Trees are one thing, but how about hundreds of limbs -- big limbs?" Russell said.

The 11th fairway was littered with branches for some 300 yards. The practice areas were covered with debris. It was time-consuming to clear, though the crew worked from morning darkness until noon to try to get the course ready.

The more jarring images were large trees that had been cracked at the trunk, some of them crashing on top of the ropes that had lined the fairways. The 75-foot tree on the 14th was about 75 yards beyond the area where players hit their tee shots. One worker arrived with three small chain saws in the back of his cart. Given the size of the tree, it was akin to bringing a garden hose to put out a bonfire.

On Friday, Woods played a risky shot off the pine straw around a 60-foot tree toward the green on the par-5 sixth. A day later, that tree was on its side, cracked at trunk.

The wood signs on nearly every tee box had been ripped from the sign posts, and the trailers that house the PGA Tour's communications system, such as Shotlink scoring, narrowly escaped severe damage. Workers had to repair cables that provide the wireless signal, which would have delayed the reporting of scores.

Television coverage was scheduled for its normal hours, though CBS Sports was not going beyond its 6 p.m. time slot, and Golf Channel could not pick up the rest of the third round because of its obligation to the LPGA Tour.

Hunter Mahan was at 7-under 135 and had a two-shot lead.

Ben Curtis arrived about 5:30 a.m. to start his third round. He was to tee off at 7 a.m., the first group to play, meaning no one else was on the course. The tour switched to threesomes off both tees to try to finish the third round Saturday, meaning that Curtis and Y.E. Yang were the last group off the 10th tee at 3:10 p.m.

With no fans, there was no need for concession stands. One tent remained open, supplying sandwiches to the volunteers needed to run the tournament, such as keeping score and helping with spotting golf balls that go into rough.

Russell said the only people on the course had permanent credentials from the tour or the AT&T National.

Saturday tickets would be honored on Sunday.

Even so, it figured to be an eerie scene in the third round with Woods, Mahan, Adam Scott and Vijay Singh on the golf course, and hardly anyone watching them.

"It was an easy decision," Russell said of the plan to keep spectators away. "Everything inside the ropes was thrown outside the ropes."

He said the final round Sunday also would start late to give workers time to remove some of the debris that has been piled outside the ropes.

The only other recollection of a tournament with no fans was in 2000 for a Champions Tour event in St. Louis, when Arnold Palmer played. The King can draw a gallery anywhere, but storms that week caused such a problem with traffic that no one could get to the golf course.