The 17th hole at Baltusrol Golf Club taunts Tiger Woods. It sits there like a great white whale, at 650 yards the longest hole ever in a major championship, more than a third of a mile. Most players view it with wariness. Woods sees it as a provocation.
Woods is still in contention at the PGA Championship, only six strokes behind the leaders, and he might be a lot closer if his "Moby-Dick"-like pursuit of an eagle at No. 17 ever succeeds. Twice in the past two days, Woods has taken a huge cut at his ball and attempted to reach the green in two shots. Both times, he has found trouble instead of the green. He has not eagled it, or even birdied it. Instead, he has played it three times in a combined 1 over par. If Woods should lose the PGA by only a couple of strokes, he will have his performance at No. 17 partly to blame. But if he should make a run at this title Sunday, it will be because he at last subdues the hole.
Woods's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness: He thinks he can do anything on a golf course. Most of the time, he's right. Woods is accustomed to rewriting the mathematics of the game, so it doesn't faze him that there has been just one eagle on No. 17 in three days (by Kenny Perry). While the rest of us relentlessly insist that two times five is 10, Woods hits shots that suggest the answer, in his case, is 11.
But the question Woods might ask himself about No. 17, after finding trouble again Saturday, is: What's so wrong with a wedge?
If distance is a stubborn fact of nature, Woods meets it with his hard head. Woods has now given up at least two strokes on No. 17, and possibly three, by going for eagle. Had he played more conservatively, and laid up, he might have made a couple of critical birdies. But then, he would not be Tiger Woods if he played more conservatively, would he? If No. 17 has been a downfall for Woods, it's also provided an X-ray into his innards and an insight into his psychology.
On Friday, Woods came to No. 17 in danger of missing the cut altogether. The sensible play was to lay up and hit wedge for a birdie chance -- he after all possesses the best short game in the world. Instead, Woods was determined to impose his will on the hole, despite the fact only one player previously had ever reached it in two, John Daly in the 1993 U.S. Open. No matter.
He launched a towering 350-yard drive, and lashed a 3-wood. The ball missed the green narrowly, kicked hard left and bounded under the lip of a greenside bunker. Bogey. It was a potentially disastrous decision -- Ben Hogan would not have approved -- and only a birdie at the 18th kept him in the tournament.
On Saturday, Woods came to No. 17 full of confidence. He had chewed up the back nine, with birdies at the 10th, 14th and 15th. The hole was playing downwind, and the fairway, baked hard by the sun, allowed for a lot of roll.
Woods cannoned a 350-yard drive. That left him 274 yards to the pin. But as soon as he swiped at his 3-wood, he pointed left, and yelled, "Fore!" He pulled the shot, which careened into the greenside trees. He caught a fortunate break when the ball came to rest in the tamped-down grass under a spectator's camping chair. But he couldn't do any better than par.
The wisdom of going for it at 17 has become one of the livelier debates of the PGA. It's a faint dogleg lined by beeches and canopies of oaks. As riveting as it is to watch Woods on No. 17, he may be overcomplicating the hole. Davis Love III doesn't consider it a particularly difficult layout; he parred it in the first two rounds by laying up.
"If you hit the fairway, it plays like a par 3, really," Love says. "Hit the fairway, hit a 5-iron, hit a wedge in. You know, it's not as big a deal as people are making it."
But Love contradicted his own advice in the third round and went for it, running his 3-wood up to the greenside rough, and made birdie.
Phil Mickelson, on the other hand, has refused all temptation. He has played the hole in 1 under through three rounds and given himself birdie chances each day by laying up and hitting wedge.
The enticement of an eagle at No. 17 is liable to make for a thrilling finish Sunday. Especially because it precedes the 554-yard 18th, another par 5 that tempts the long hitters. Woods has been almost as frustrated at 18, inexplicably playing it in even par though it's the easiest hole on the course -- failure to make birdie there is almost as good as a bogey. Between the two holes, he's yielded at least four or five shots.
But Woods has nevertheless cut the lead in half -- he started the day 12 strokes back. And in that context, it's hard to fault Woods's reasoning at No. 17 on Saturday. In his mind, he was thinking about a course record-tying 63, if he could take advantage of the two closing par 5s.
Woods made it clear he's not at Baltusrol just to make the cut, and he's not here to lay up, either, especially not downwind. He's here to win, and to win, he needs to make some eagles.
"I thought if I shot 63 today, it would be a pretty good number," he said. "It's certainly out there."
So a wedge was not an option, he said curtly, when questioned about his decision.
"Given that set of conditions, any thought to laying up and giving yourself . . . "
"You're a good wedge player."
"No. I needed a 3."
Then again, he could have used a 4.
No doubt, Woods will go for No. 17 again in the final round. And when he does, a certain passage will come to mind, from a certain book about another man in search of a large prey:
"Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations."