It was supposed to be a quiet Friday night.
My wife — about 3 months pregnant with our first child — was in Charlotte, about to be a bridesmaid in a 95-degree outdoor wedding.
I was at home, with Tiger Woods’ AT&T National in town at Congressional Country Club. I had already downed a few beers, commiserating alone. I’d been told earlier in the week I’d be losing my job with Golf Channel at the end of the month. I had no clue what to do next but spin up a website on a domain I hadn’t used in four or five years and start cranking out stories that soon would need a home.
Amid that low-ABC, newly-unemployed daze, a sudden burst of wind around 10:30 p.m. caught my attention. Rockville, Md. doesn’t get wind, at least not like that. I had waited out a few tropical storms and hurricanes in my life, and that’s exactly what it sounded like outside: strong gusts forcing trees to move back and forth, creating a driving rain that sounded like bullets on our roof. I was confused. We can get pop-up thunderstorms in the mid-Atlantic, but this wasn’t one of those.
It’s not like I was going out there, so, every few minutes, I would look concerned out the window trying to figure out what the hell was happening. The steady wind was disconcerting; the gusts were frightening. And then, the power went out.
I had nothing better to do but drink, scroll Twitter and see if some local weather person was explaining what was happening. Not finding much, I texted my wife to tell her there was no electricity, and I was turning off my phone to save juice, and I was going to sleep.
By morning, what had happened was illuminated by morning light, and meteorologists had figured out how to label it.
They called the storm a “derecho.” That didn’t explain much. It’s Spanish for “straight,” and it’s not to be confused with “derecha,” which means right.
The label wasn’t important so much as what the derecho did. It was an impromptu hurricane sans much rain, uprooting trees, sending debris flying and knocking out power pretty much everywhere. That meant waking up to a quickly warming house on a humid send off to June.
By dawn, the folks with the PGA Tour and Tiger Woods Foundation were scrambling. They had to evaluate what had happened, not only to Congressional but the surrounding area. On both fronts, there was a lot to clean up. Traffic lights were out in a lot of places, making a potential shuttling of thousands of people a nightmare. Power was a problem most everywhere, but the generators on site could provide the necessary power to run a bare-bones tournament.
The Congressional grounds crew, and some smattering of other unofficial helpers, rallied quickly and started doing everything they could to get the course ready for play, not knowing if it would be good enough to salvage Moving Day. When I arrived at the media center just around 10 a.m., the setting was chaotic but the pace of progress workmanlike. Lots of Gator carts were moving about, while the constant hum of chainsaws doing their work underscored the sense of urgency. The staff thought they could make the venerable Blue Course playable, clearing it of some 40 downed trees, thousands of windsawed limbs and twigs, as well felled temporary structures for the tournament. A group of 60 people made it happen with superhero speed.
It was announced the third round would go on, starting at 1 p.m. in threesomes off the first and 10th tees. But here’s the thing: No spectators would be allowed on property. It was Nobody Day at the AT&T National.
So, at 1 p.m., the threesome of George McNeill, Greg Owen and Brian Harman and their caddies all stood on the tee box, ready to play. A group of 30 people — a mix of media, Congressional members, volunteers and people taking a break from clean-up work — stood as the Marine first-tee starter did his job.
“Welcome to the AT&&T National,” the Marine said. “This is the 1 o’clock starting time.”
McNeill was first to play. When the noise of a chainsaw blasted through the air down toward the fairway, McNeill backed off his shot. Everyone laughed. What else was there to do?
Those guys on the box were perhaps used to getting around without anyone noticing them. But at least there were usually people on every hole, creating a background of white noise. On the other side of the massive Congressional clubhouse, Jim Furyk was getting ready to start his round on No. 10. He was a bit unnerved by the dearth of a gallery.
“In a group of 1,000 people, if someone does something, it’s hard to see it,” he said. “If a guy picks his nose today, I’ll see him.”
The tournament host went out at 2:40 p.m., playing with Bo Van Pelt and Cameron Tringale. Woods had the largest gallery of the day, which is to say that pretty much everyone on property watching golf that Saturday was on the first tee when Woods was announced. He trailed Hunter Mahan by five shots at the halfway mark. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch Woods play an official, competitive round with almost no restrictions. Of course, the fans couldn’t walk the fairways, and there were still hints of rope lines, but the people were within ear shot of everything Woods said and did. You could hear every voiced monologue, every punctuated obscenity when he didn’t execute.
But Woods came out hot, making birdie on two of the first three holes. He then struggled with driver on two of the next three holes, going left on the fourth and par-5 sixth. He rediscovered his touch greenside, however, chipping on from left off the green for birdie to about as thunderous applause one could expect from 40 people. Like a really nice retirement party crowd. Woods wasn’t fist-pumping because, well, who was watching?
Crossing over to the back nine, then-CBS on-course commentator David Feherty was cracking jokes in between calls. Woods was locked in but occasionally broke character to chat it up, particularly after the good shots, including the stunner he hit into the long downhill par-3 10th, which would lead to his fourth and final birdie of the day.
At the end of it all, Woods shot a bogey-free 4-under 67 on Saturday at his own tournament, which he hadn’t played in the prior two years because of scandal and injury.
“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.”
The third-round score landed him in the final trio on Sunday with leader Brendon de Jonge, who Woods trailed by a shot, and Van Pelt, who would get another day with Tiger.
That next day, Woods shot 2-under 69 and won his 74th PGA Tour title by two shots. Afterward, Woods downplayed the personal significance of the gallery-less round.
“It was different if it would have been a Sunday, and this was a Saturday,” he said. “We’re just playing for positioning, and we’re trying to get ourselves in position to win a golf tournament. Now, if we had that atmosphere on a Sunday as a final round, now, that would have been interesting.
But then Woods revealed an unintentional meta truth about the week.
He said with a smile, “As long as I won, I would be OK.”