The PGA Tour pros who arrived at the hole Thursday during the first round of the Players Championship likely aren’t aware that annually, 120,000 balls kerplunk into the four feet of water that surrounds the green. They might find it amusing that four times a year, the tour hires divers to clean the bottom of the lake of all those wayward shots, hit by hackers and scratch players alike.
“That golf hole makes you nervous even when you’re playing a practice round,” said former U.S. Open champ Johnny Miller, who will serve as an analyst this weekend on NBC. “I love nervous holes, and holes that you have to sort of answer to. It’s a fantastic hole.”
That is not a universally held opinion. Renowned architect Pete Dye gets credit — or in some minds, blame — for designing the island, and it is, whether he ever intended it to be, his signature work. The reality is, though, he didn’t dream it up that way. “It just kind of arrived,” Dye once said.
In order to build TPC Sawgrass, which former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman envisioned as a permanent host for the Players, dirt had to be extracted to fill in what was otherwise a sandy, swampy, 415-acre plot of land. The best dirt came from the area that was supposed to be the 17th, albeit with only a small pond nearby. Dye’s crew kept digging. And one day, his wife Alice — herself an accomplished player and designer — arrived on site and suggested the idea for an island. Fifty thousand cubic yards of dirt was hauled away, and the island green remained.
“It’s dramatic,” Tiger Woods allowed, judiciously.
When the Players is on the line over the weekend, and the bank to the left of the hole is packed with rowdy, beer-swilling golf fans, the leaders will have to step to the tee of an unusually short par 3, stare out over the water, and commit to a swing. Thursday, with the tees up and the pin at the front of a green that slopes dramatically from back to front — shortening the hole to 124 yards — players faced a 9-iron or pitching wedge that, should it be short, would certainly be wet.
“You’ve got a backboard back there where you can hit it 15 feet all day,” Woods said, referring to the slope behind the pin. “But if you want to take a run at it, you bring water into play.”
Water is in play on every shot at 17, each day of the Players. Take Angel Cabrera. The two-time major champion arrived at 17 even par for Thursday’s first round. He put his tee shot into the water. He marched to the drop area, which sits 75 yards from the center of the green. He hit what was then his third shot into the water. He dropped again. He hit what counted as his fifth shot into the water. One final drop. He hit his seventh shot onto the green. Two putts from there and he had his 9.