Sink or Swim at the Seventeenth | Iain Carter

Sink or Swim at the Seventeenth | Iain Carter

Chatting with a retired golf writer he told me the story of his one and only visit to TPC Sawgrass, the home of the Players Championship which returns to its traditional March date this month. He did not go there in an official working capacity, indeed he was on holiday and not in the week of the Players. But realising he was in the vicinity, he persuaded his wife to make a day trip to Ponte Vedra Beach. All he wanted was to take a look, not at the entire course but just to wander down to the short par-3 seventeenth. The rest did not matter, this golf writer only desired a look at one of the most famous holes in golf. As it turned out, he made the fatal mistake of asking permission in the pro’s shop and it was not forthcoming. He was turned away. The point of this woeful tale is not to debate the rights and wrongs of whether someone should be allowed to arrive unannounced and wander around a notable golf course, although it did seem somewhat harsh on this occasion. The real reason is to illustrate the lure of this devilish hole with its island green. It is right up there with Troon’s Postage Stamp, Augusta’s twelfth hole and Pebble Beach’s delightful seventh when it comes to the top of the par-3 league table. Indeed, the seventeenth at Sawgrass might well be the most famous short hole in golf. Not because it is the best, its design merits have long been debated, but because of the golfing drama it never fails to generate.

Fortunately I get to visit the Players each year to provide BBC coverage of the event known as the unofficial “fifth major”. I always make time to spend a while watching groups come through this notorious hole. So what is it like? First let me state the green is not an island, more a peninsula attached to the rest of the course by a narrow walkway that exits the back left of the putting surface. I mention this because certain pedants insist we should not call it an island green. But what do they want? A ferry ride to bridge the gap between tee shot and putt?

It is effectively an island green, let’s settle for that, and if you look from the tee which is 121 yards from the middle of the putting surface it looks a pretty generous target. It should do too - the green covers 4,500 square feet. At the front there is a small bunker cut just above the surrounding vertical wooden sleepers and a ridge runs from front to back to divide the green into distinct sections. If it sat amongst dry land we would all be able to flick our tee shots onto the green in carefree fashion. But, of course, it is not. Like most islands it is surrounded by water which means any mishit is going to incur a severe penalty. “I would think about it for days leading into the tournament,” admitted the great Johnny Miller. “This course gives you the heebee jeebees.” The golfers know the treachery that awaits and so do the crowds and that is why they flock to this spot, hungry for embarrassing splashdowns capable of radically altering the course of one of the game’s most prestigious tournaments.

In 2005 Bob Tway racked up a twelve, hitting four balls in the drink and then three putting. With no viable chance of recovering a poor shot, design purists call into question the architectural merit of the hole. Especially as it is the penultimate stop on the course and so often pivotal to the outcome. But I tend to go the other way. Professional golf is showbiz; do or die and heightened pressure makes for compelling fare. Fred Couples made a par there after having to reload and holing out with his second attempt at a tee shot. Tiger Woods drained his famous snaking 60 footer in the third round in 2001 to stay in contention and lifted the trophy for the first time the following day. Just imagine having a one shot lead on the final day, the pin tucked in its usual back right position and thousands upon thousands of eyes staring down your tee shot. There are more than ten HD television cameras capturing every moment not to mention thousands of smartphones switched to video mode.

The breeze capriciously gusts in that little corner and the slightest error of judgement means a visit to the drop zone. It is golf’s ultimate test of nerve and we see it year in year out. In 2017 no fewer than 69 balls found a watery grave on the little seventeenth, eleven of them in the final round. Over the course of a year when hackers populate the place it is estimated 100,000 balls take an early bath. Divers dredge the water four times a year and get paid for each ball they recover. It is a lucrative business. So I cannot wait to find out what stories will be made there this year and the return to its March date from May adds to the lustre. This always used to the point at which the game effectively came out of winter hibernation to whet our Masters appetite. And now The Players can perform that role once again, with all eyes inevitably on the Stadium Course’s penultimate hole. It was a shame my friend Bob never got to see the hole for real, but I have an even bigger hard luck story.

A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to play the course in a shotgun start event. I knew I had only time for fifteen holes before needing to leave to catch my flight home. There was only one hole I really wanted to have a go at and you know which one. But you guessed it, they stuck me off the first and I ran out of time before reaching the sixteenth tee. I must be the only golfer to have played the course without taking on that iconic hole. At least I kept my balls dry, though.

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