- Farrell Evans, Golf
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BETHESDA, Md. -- In practically every round of his 73 PGA Tour wins, Tiger Woods has been able to count on a massive gallery to urge him on through his dramatic mastery of the game. Tiger, set in the middle of a lush green fairway with thousands of people surrounding him, is one of the most indelible images of the past 20 years in sports. It's his home away from home, his cocoon within a sea of expectations and camera lights.
But on Saturday evening at the AT&T National, the 14-time major champion shot a third-round 4-under-par 67 without the encouragement of most of his people. After he finished his round around 8 ET with a 6-under total, a shot back of the leader, Brendan De Jonge, there wasn't this mass exodus of fans from the grounds.
Tree limbs and debris from a Friday night storm in the Washington, D.C., area forced PGA Tour officials to keep his throngs of fans away from the course on Saturday for safety reasons.
It's easy to think of Tiger and his gallery in an intimate partnership, with the former world No. 1 feeding off the energy of the fans. It has been give and take for many years, through the good and the bad. But after his round Saturday, Tiger didn't seem to miss his gang.
"This was a Saturday round," Woods said. "It was a chance to play myself into a tournament. I was five back, and whether there's a gallery or not it doesn't change the execution of the golf shot. The ball still needs to be placed correctly around the golf course, and I did that most of the today."
On Saturday, when Tiger badly pulled drives into the rough at the fourth and sixth holes, there were no fans to excitedly surround his ball. When he chipped in from off the green for birdie at the par-5 sixth, his fist pump didn't coincide with thunderous applause. When he missed very makeable birdie putts on the front nine, there weren't groans from the fans to block out the sound of him saying the F-bomb in a quiet voice.
From afar, if you didn't recognize Tiger's build and golden complexion, you would have thought he was a part of a group of three middling tour players struggling to not finish last in the tournament. Tiger's army of thousands numbered in the tens on Saturday.
The gallery was a smattering of Congressional members, grounds crew dressed in purple shirts and khakis, Tiger Woods Foundation staff, an assortment of media types and a few real fans who probably slipped through the gates.
Still, Tiger had the biggest gallery of the day.
"I told Tiger that was a Bo Van Pelt crowd," said Van Pelt, who played with Tiger on Saturday and equaled Woods' third-round 67 for a 6-under total. "I'm used to playing in front of 10 or 15 people."
Van Pelt, who has played many times with Tiger over the years, said he felt cheated when Tiger chipped in at the sixth hole.
"The normal crowd would have gotten really loud," said the one-time PGA Tour winner. "You take energy from that."
The 37-year-old Van Pelt recalled playing with Tiger in one of the last groups at the 2010 Memorial, in which Van Pelt finished in a tie for third.
"It was great to play in that atmosphere," he said. "That's why you practice. You take energy from that and it helps you focus."
On Sunday, Van Pelt and Tiger will tee off at 1:15 p.m. ET in the last group with 54-hole leader Brendon De Jonge. If a Saturday night storm doesn't make another mess of Congressional, the fans will probably be back in their familiar perch engulfing Tiger's group.
Sure, it was quiet on Saturday. Even if Tiger had his following, his eight consecutive pars on the back nine to finish his round probably wouldn't have elicited much of a roar. According to Tiger, it wasn't time for the emotions.
"I don't really get that fired up on Thursday, Friday and Saturday," he said.
Come Sunday afternoon, though, he will surely summon some of those feelings as he tries to win his third event of the year. In the way of Woods' 74th career victory are Van Pelt and De Jonge, who with a 69 on Saturday shot his third straight under-par round of the week. But with 17 players within 5 shots of the lead, anything can happen.
In 2009, when the AT&T National was last held at Congressional, Hunter Mahan almost caught Tiger on Sunday with a 62.
"It depends on if we get any rain tonight, because there are a lot of tough pins but also some accessible ones out there tomorrow," Tiger said Saturday. "If we get the course soft like it was today, I think some guys can shoot some good numbers."
No matter how the course sets up for scoring, Sunday's final round will benefit from the energy of Tiger's crowd and its way of rolling with the tide of its man's emotions. And if you believe Van Pelt, that energy could help someone else beat the player they have come to follow as if he were the golfing Messiah.
With his usual throng of fans sidelined by Mother Nature and the PGA Tour, Tiger Woods' 67 on Saturday at the AT&T National put him in contention for a third win of 2012, writes Farrell Evans.