A hole lot of mind games

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:11 AM ET

There are dozens of ways in which The Players Championship is a special week on the golf calendar but, when all is said and done, the real fascination revolves around one dinky little par-3 hole.

You can talk about the star-studded field, the giant purse money, the start of the true competitive season, or the other 17 holes that make up the magnificent Stadium Course.

But the conversation always come back to what has arguably become the most famous hole in golf: The island green 17th, the hole that architect Pete Dye created by accident.

This is the 24th year of the Players Championship on this course and the 17th still gets into the heads of the best players in the world. It is 132 yards to the front edge, over water -- a wedge or a 9-iron -- to a generous 4,000-square-foot green, a gorgeous little hole with enormous consequences. Hardly a shot that you'd think would make a PGA Tour pro's knees shake, yet it presents a huge psychological barrier, especially with the tournament on the line.

"It's fantastic because you know all day that 17 is coming," defending champion Adam Scott said yesterday.

"You can try to put it out of your mind but then, when you get to the 16th fairway, it's sitting right there.

"They say 'You cannot look' but you always look and it's just a fabulous hole. Just a wedge or a 9-iron but it creates havoc in everyone's mind. "You can be leading by two, leading by four, but until you get past 17, it's never really over."

Dye created the hole quite by mistake. It was originally designed as a routine par-3, guarded by a lagoon. The dirt around the lagoon was particularly fertile and he kept using it to help create greens and fairways elsewhere. When it came time to build the 17th green, he had used up all the good dirt.

That's when Dye's wife, Alice, suggested an island green and a legend was born. Tens of thousands of golf fans will huddle around the lagoon's edges this week to watch the inevitable train wrecks in golf's greatest amphitheatre. Thousands of dollars will change hands in the gallery on bets between friends: Wet or dry?

"It's all right," says Tiger Woods, trying to play down the head game the hole presents. "It's more of a TV hole, more for you guys than it is for us. It's a great hole when the wind is blowing and swirling and you've got to figure out what club to pull. When the wind comes in your face, I've hit as much as a 5-iron and it's only 145 yards. It's a little dicey sometimes."

Tiger's right about one thing. It's a TV hole. NBC will cover the hole with as many as 14 cameras this weekend, including one that can travel as fast as 60 m.p.h. on a wire, travelling between the tee and the green to follow the shot in the air.

Kenny Perry, last week's winner at Bay Hill, says that from the first tee onward, he can't shake the spectre of the 17th that lies in wait. Other players say they put it completely out of their minds, refusing to look even when they have the chance coming down the 16th fairway.

"That's a lie," Scott said. "I even did it last year. I tried to tell myself not to look over but I had a look, I know I did. Just to see where the pin is, maybe to catch a tee-ball from the group in front to see how it is landing.

"It's like people who say they don't watch scoreboards. You have to watch the leaderboard. You'd hate to make a mistake when you didn't need to take a risk. You've got to know how you stand. At 17, you've got to know where the pin is, so you take a look."

What scares the professionals about 17 is the all-or-nothing aspect. There is no place to miss the shot, unlike virtually every other hole in golf. Despite the fact it's a shot most of them could make in their sleep, there is always doubt.

"It's not only the wind and the small green and the water that's around it," Sergio Garcia said. "It's the adrenalin.

"You think, well, I have 140 yards. Okay, a little 9-iron. But the adrenalin is pumping so hard that you hit a little 9 and the little 9 is going 165 yards.

"I think it's an awesome hole, a wonderful finishing hole to go with 18 and 16. Just an amazing finish for an amazing event."


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