The Last WordSome PGA pros love the 17th hole at the TPC at Sawgrass. Others hate the perilous par-3 with its island green. Either way, they all have to face it.
By KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- It's such a simple little shot, the kind a PGA Tour pro can make with his eyes closed.
How easy is the tee shot to the island green on No. 17 at TPC at Sawgrass? Well, yesterday lefty Mike Weir stuck a shot right over the pin, 20 feet from the hole. Right-handed.
Piece of cake. But what a difference 24 hours can make. On the card, it's listed at 137 yards from the tee to the middle of the 4,000-square-foot green. A front pin is a little shorter, a back pin a little longer. This morning, that simple little shot with a 9-iron or a wedge will have these flinty-eyed mercenaries hyperventilating on the tee as they clutch their irons in clammy hands.
"There are 361 days a year when it's a very easy hole," Jeff Sluman said. "In practice rounds, you wonder how you could possibly miss the green. But Thursday through Sunday, the week of The Players (Championship), it's one of the most difficult shots you can face."
When it comes to the 17th hole at TPC at Sawgrass, there is no grey area. The PGA Tour players either love it or hate it.
"Some of us love to hate it," Lee Janzen said.
Golf fans all over the world have no such reservations. Every year at this time they become riveted to the spectacle in the amphitheatre around the 17th green, waiting for the inevitable train wreck. It might be the only golf hole in the world with its own website: "Live at 17" provides continuous video of every tee shot hit by every quivering player this week.
No matter whether they love it or hate it, the professionals can agree on this: The island green has made The Players Championship into the high-profile tournament that it is.
"If you see an aerial shot of that green, even casual golf fans know what it is and where it is," pro Jerry Kelly said. "It's not the best hole in golf, but it's without a doubt the most famous. And it's as pure a golf hole as there is.
"Here's the tee, here's the green; now hit it."
It's the all-or-nothing aspect of the 17th that strikes to the core of many players' psyches. There is no way to protect a good score coming down the stretch, knowing that the only option is to hit an accurate shot in the face of all that water and all that pressure.
"It gets your adrenalin pumping," said Weir, who borrowed playing partner Tom Byrum's right-handed 7-iron to hit his 140-yard shot yesterday.
"It makes for great drama in the tournament."
When Pete Dye was creating this golf course more than two decades ago, he didn't plan on an island green at 17. During construction, he had discovered that the soil in the lagoon was particularly rich so he used tons of it to fortify the soil in other areas of the course.
By the time he was ready to create the 17th green, originally designed as a shot over water to a landside green, he didn't have enough soil left.
It was his wife's suggestion to create an island green and thus, a monster was created.
Because of its dramatic exposure in the tournament, it has become one of the reasons that this course is one of the most popular tourist golf destinations in the United States. Every year, upwards of 120,000 balls are fished out of the pond. Players with later tee times, racing the sunlight to get finished, have been known to skip some holes on the back nine just so they can get their hacks in at 17.
As for the PGA pros, the test at 17 presents an intriguing psychological statement.
"I equate it to walking a balance beam," Phil Mickelson said. "You can walk a balance beam no problem a foot off the ground, but raise it to 10 stories and it looks different, but it's still the same task."
"It's a pucker-up hole," Tour veteran Scott Hoch said. "We don't like water any more than any weekend golfer does."
Probably the 17th's most dramatic victim was Len Mattiace, the man Weir defeated in a playoff at the Masters last year. In 1998 Mattiace came to the 17th in the final round of The Players trailing Justin Leonard by one shot. With Mattiace's mother, who was in poor health, watching in a wheelchair, Mattiace hit two balls in the water and made an eight.
He says that moment stayed with him longer than his playoff loss to Weir.
"Augusta is a lot happier memory in my mind," he said. "Realistically, it took me almost two years until (The Players Championship in 2000) it didn't affect me anymore, because of the tragedy and the big number.
"The hole is what it is: It puts a little knot in your throat."