Island green at 17th endures as Players' tough test

Tiger Woods walks to the 17th hole's island green at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., during practice for the 2013 Players Championship.

Tiger Woods walks to the 17th hole's island green at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., during practice for the 2013 Players Championship.

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Head out to TPC Sawgrass and The Players Stadium Course, one of Pete Dye’s more devilish concoctions, and not write anything about the 17th hole? Why, one has a better shot of getting off the train in Augusta in April and not typing the words “pimento cheese.”

A longtime scribe who covered many a Players Championship once said this tournament will never be accepted as a major for one simple reason: “It’s played on a golf course,” he said, “that has 17 holes and a carnival.”

Funny line. The Players is a terrific event – great golf course, great field, great fan vantage points and great big purse – and boasts a nice crystal trophy that every player in golf longs to have. The one blip in the lineup that the longtime golf writer was talking about, of course, is the short but stout par-3 17th, or The Little Hole That Could.

Ruin a man’s entire week in an instant, that is.

Certainly at TPC Sawgrass, the smallest is not necessarily the meekest. It’s not the most difficult hole on the golf course, but it’s the main attraction, a little more than a football field long surrounded on three sides by fans and played to a large but intimidating island green. Not since Gilligan set sail has one little island garnered so much talk around the water cooler. The hole's sole mission: embarrass the greatest golfers on Earth. Hey, people love carnage, which is probably why there are twice as many corporate chalets around 17 than there are on the Stadium’s closing hole.

Davis Love III, who is playing in his 28th Players, stood alone on the 17th tee last Sunday, no wind and not a single fan around, “and I was still nervous,” he said. “So that doesn’t really ever change.”

Fill in all that water around the green, and it would be a four-day Deuces Are Wild festival, with every player in this field fearlessly taking dead aim. But surround it with a little of the wet stuff, and suddenly it becomes a different puzzle to solve. An all-or-nothing proposition. Hit land or hit the road.

It took Phil Mickelson more than a decade before he finally came to terms with the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass. I mean, here’s a guy with the touch of Midas, a wedge in his hand and an ego the size of California, knowing there isn’t a flagstick on the planet that can hide from him. Fair enough. But several years back, he swallowed hard and made an astute, line-in-the-sand resolution: That dastardly little hole is not going to cost me the tournament, he decided. So he and his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, simply disregard the hole location each day, and Bones gives Phil the number to the top of the ridge (on Thursday, 132 yards) that divides the two sections of the green. Mickelson aims there each round.

On days when the pin is cut on the back of the green, he’ll accept a 40- or 50-footer for birdie; those he figures he can two-putt. On days such as Thursday, when the hole is cut on the front portion, Mickelson takes aim at the middle ridge, and if his ball hits and funnels back down, he’ll have a good birdie look. On Thursday, he had 13 feet. His birdie effort slid past.

The first year he came to his great concession with No. 17? It was 2007. Mickelson made four 3s at 17 that week, shot 277 and won his lone Players Championship.

“I’ll make my birdies,” he reasons, “on the other 17 holes.”

“All you want to do when you stand on that tee – ALL you want to do – is find a way to get a putter into your hands,” said caddie Brian Smith, who is on the bag of Harris English, competing in his second Players. Smith has been here for many Players, working for several different golfers. A year ago, he was on the bag for Sean O’Hair, who, playing his 35th hole of the tournament, splashed one in the water, made double, and missed the cut by two. Of course, that scene was a little less painful for O’Hair than ‘07, when he arrived to 17 in contention on Sunday, trailing Mickelson by two, and dunked two balls to go from second place to 11th, a move that cost the young O’Hair a cool quarter-million dollars. Try calling home to the wife after that one. You want solace? In 2005, Bob Tway made 12 there. A cool dozen.

On Thursday, the tee at 17 was moved up a little (from 137 to 124 yards) and the steady 13 mph breeze from the southeast was mostly at the golfers’ backs, so the mightiest pound-for-pound hole on Tour lacked its sharp jab, finishing ninth (3.06 shots) and in the middle of the pack in terms of difficulty. Only 15 golf balls (12 of them tee shots) ended up in the water on the hole, and the hole surrendered 22 birdies.

It still had its moments. William McGirt shot 33 on the back nine, but six of those shots came at 17. Erik Compton drenched two balls and made 7. The wind even fooled Tiger Woods, who leads the Tour in par-3 average (2.94). He hit a little wedge that carried too far, and as his ball settled some 54 feet, 8 inches beyond the hole, he stood on the tee, hands on his hips, as if betrayed by the golf gods. Try as he might, he made a great putt, but this time there would be no “Better than most” moment. He settled for 3. Every player in the field is fine with that.

David Lynn, the 40-year-old Englishman seeing the Stadium Course for the first time this week, wanted badly to hit his 54-degree wedge there, but thought better and hit a “chip” wedge past the hole.

“It is exciting, isn’t it?” Lynn said afterward. “There are not many holes around that get your attention quite like that one.”

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