BETHESDA — BETHESDA -- Steve Tucker and his brother Bruce bought tickets for this year's AT&T; National in January just to see Tiger Woods play in the tournament he brought to Congressional Country Club for the first time last summer.
Even in watching an injured Woods grimace his way to last month's U.S. Open championship, the Tuckers never thought the world's best golfer would miss his own tournament and their first professional golf event.
"Actually, at that point, I was even more excited the way he came back to tie and win in a playoff," Steve Tucker recalled yesterday after making the drive from Wilmington, Del.
That excitement quickly dissipated when Woods announced he was undergoing season-ending knee surgery.
Instead of following Woods, the Tuckers were watching Tom Pernice Jr., a PGA Tour journeyman who will go into today's final round with a one-stroke lead over Steve Stricker.
If there was a benefit to Woods not being here, it came from the fact that the Tuckers, along with the rest in the noticeably smaller galleries, were not going to suffer from strained necks trying to get an unobstructed view.
As things have turned out, the absence of Woods was only the start of troubles for the second-year PGA Tour event.
After attracting seven of the top 10 in the world a year ago and making the inaugural tournament feel like a major championship, only seven of the top 30 started Thursday's opening round.
Of those, only two - Stricker, who finished second last year to K.J. Choi, and rising star Anthony Kim - were close to the lead going into yesterday. Kim, 23, whose first PGA Tour win came at the Wachovia Championship this year, is three strokes behind. Choi is 10 strokes behind after shooting 1-over-par 71 in the third round.
The absence of stars has left this historic golf venue lacking the buzz it had last year and should have again when Woods returns next summer. Attendance yesterday was an announced 22,311, a drop of more than 15,000 from last year's third round. It has also left the tournament with a familiar vibe - as a second-tier event.
Golf fans grew accustomed to that status during the latter years of the Kemper Open, which went through a number of corporate name changes before closing down two years ago.
The PGA Tour has also experienced it, when Woods, the world's No. 1 player for much of the decade, didn't play a particular week or three. Tour and tournament officials, as well as players, acknowledge the difference - to a point.
"It's going to be a different feeling, but it's not going to take away from it," Rocco Mediate, who lost to Woods in a playoff at the U.S. Open, said last week.
In a news conference here last week, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said injuries to a few other celebrated players and a British Open qualifier have also weakened this year's field.
Asked whether he would characterize the lackluster field as an aberration, Finchem said: "I don't know if I can characterize it as an aberration or not. I think the unique factor is we have four top players in addition to Tiger that are hurt."
It has left the $6 million event and a first-prize check of just more than $1 million to a bunch of wannabes and never-have-beens.
Pernice, 48, was ranked 152nd coming into last week. Jeff Overton, who shared the lead with Pernice going into yesterday and is two strokes back going into today, is ranked 309th.
While some golfers have been accused of playing with blinders on, Pernice isn't one of them.
"When you have somebody that's that big a force from a spectator standpoint, from a TV standpoint and plus his skill level ... no tournament's going to be the same," Pernice said after shooting a course-record 63 on Friday.
Wesley Carr, an event planner from Laurel, had been to the last Booz Allen Classic at nearby Avenel in 2006. And he was here last year when you could barely move because of the huge crowds.
Even without his favorite player in the field, Carr returned this year.
"I myself love golf, and I love this course," he said yesterday. "The galleries are not as deep, but that's about it. They still put on a great tournament."
Note -- Because of a forecast of late afternoon thunderstorms, the start of today's round will be pushed up so that the last threesome will tee off at 10 a.m. and be finished about 3 p.m.