PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – There is just no escape, no bailout, nowhere to hide. The potential for embarrassment looms with every shot.
There are better holes in golf, no doubt. There are tougher holes, a few shorter holes, holes that have been the stages for more history. But it would be difficult to find a more recognizable patch of grass anywhere in the world of golf than the island green at TPC Sawgrass’s 17th hole, where water sits as a danger front, back, left and right, and where what would seem to be a simple little shot — all of 137 yards on the scorecard — can become frightening.
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.
Cabrera thus played the 17 longest holes at TPC Sawgrass in even par, and the shortest hole in 6 over. He proved, in one 15-minute span, what Phil Mickelson once said: “There’s no cap on how high you can go.” To date, the cap at the Players is Bob Tway’s 12 in the third round in 2005. Two hours later, Cabrera assured he wouldn’t challenge it. He withdrew from the tournament, citing “personal reasons.”
Such is the potential humiliation of 17. Sixteen players hit 18 balls in the water there Thursday. More will surely follow over the weekend.
“It’s like having a 3 o’clock appointment for a root canal,” longtime PGA Tour player Mark Calcavecchia said years ago. “You’re thinking about it all morning and you feel bad all day. You kind of know, sooner or later, you’ve got to get to it.”
And there’s no telling what the result might be. Louis Oosthuizen, who has a British Open title to his credit and lost in a playoff at this year’s Masters, came to 17 Thursday and immediately fell into a trap. “I was between clubs,” he said. A nice, easy 9 iron? Or perhaps step on a wedge? That speck of doubt crept in, his 9 iron came out, the water loomed all around. The ball hit the front edge of the bank and bounded back in.
“It proves,” Oosthuizen said afterward, “that a par 3 doesn’t have to be 200 yards to be a great par 3, a really tough hole.”
The hole is tough enough that some players, Woods included, would prefer it to be elsewhere on the course. “I think it’s a perfect eighth hole or something like that,” Woods said. The idea is that a player who, say, double bogeys there with one bad swing would have more time to recover.
But it is the signature hole at the PGA Tour’s signature event, and it isn’t going anywhere. Thursday, Woods and his playing partners, Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan, came to 17, walked off the yardage and checked the wind. Each took a solid swing, Fowler to 12 feet, Woods then to 13, Mahan to just four.
“Some kind of strange things can happen on it,” Mahan said. The strangest yet? Three dry golf balls, and three birdies.