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Is No. 17 at Sawgrass fair? Yes, but who cares
Matt Kuchar came to No. 17 at The Players Championship with a two shot lead in Round 3. With just a 52-degree wedge in his hands on the tee, Kuchar rinsed his tee shot just short of the Pete Dye’s famous Island Green, meaning he would have to play another shot entirely over water to an extremely firm two-tiered green.
Was it a good shot? No, Kuchar admitted after the round that he did not catch the shot solidly. But most shots PGA Tour pros hit on the correct line with a wedge in their hands do not result in the same punishment.
Kuchar recovered by hitting a 60-degree half-wedge shot from 72 yards to just a few feet, a putt that he converted for bogey, but other players who found the water on No. 17 in Round 3 weren’t so lucky. Ryan Moore hit the wood piling in front of the green with a wedge, causing the ball to kick well right into the hazard. His shot from the drop area skidded all the way across the back of the green, but stopped just short of the hazard. Still, putting down the hole’s enormous slope, the best Moore could manage was a three putt.
If Moore’s tee shot had gone another foot or so, he may have had a chance at a birdie putt. Instead he made a triple-bogey six, dropping him from contention. Kevin Streelman hit almost the same shot as Moore, except his wedge went about 6 inches farther. It hit the bulkhead, bounced straight into the air, and settled in the back of the green. He two-putted for par, putting him at 4-under for the tournament, within 8 shots of third-round leader Kevin Na.
But those examples were an exception to what fans saw at No. 17 at The Players on Saturday. I arrived at No. 17 at 12:20 p.m. to watch the first group play the island green, and stayed until the final pairing, Zach Johnson and Kevin Na finished the hole. Quite a few players were jittery on the tee while watching their balls in the air, but No. 17 proved to be benign for almost everyone in Round 3.
After two hours, not a single player had found the water hazard at the island green. Then, George McNeil hit a shot that not even a 15-handicapper would have liked. It sounded terrible off his club, squirting straight right and coming up well short. But McNeil was in last place at the time, and finished with a third-round 82. It made sense that the golfer who was playing the worst in Round 3 would hit it in the water on No. 17.
Most players chose to play the 17th by hitting a wedge or gap wedge right of the flag, carrying their shots a little past pin high. That way, their ball could catch the slope that runs at a 45-degree angle from right to left across the green, which funnels the ball back toward Saturday’s front left pin position. Many players carried their shots too far, leaving themselves on the upper tier facing a difficult two putt. Other players had the confidence in their wedge game to take dead aim at the flag, which resulted in birdies for some of them. In all, 72 players came to No. 17 and only four of them found the water hazard. The other 68 players that hit the green? They made 10 birdies, 55 pars and three bogeys. That’s a fair hole to me.
Many players have taken it upon themselves to berate the Island Green, saying that the quirkiness of the hole is the reason the course will never host a major championship. And they’re right – it most likely won’t ever host a major. But it’s a shame, because No. 17 is an awesome golf hole, especially for the fans at The Players.
TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course got its name because of the ability for golf fans to watch the action of several different holes from one location. And it is probably the best golf stadium that ever been built. But holes Nos. 1-15 are pretty quiet by the standard of the stadiums of other sports. But then there’s the amphitheater that surrounds No. 16 green, No. 17 and No. 18 tee. It’s a madhouse.
Even after the marshals raise their hands for quiet, there’s a permanent buzz from the area’s thousands of fans, who show up early and stay right up until the end. There are concessions everywhere – pizza, barbeque, ice cream, etc. There’s a merchandise tent that’s bigger than any putting surface the Stadium has to offer, and even a TOUR Academy golf simulator where you can try your hand at the 17th hole.
And the atmosphere is electric. Players are forced to walk through the heart of the large crowds, taking in the circulating scent of beer, cigar smoke and sunscreen. While most of the diehard golf fans settle along the ropes, getting as close to the action as possible, the majority of spectators seem to be there just for the party. For four days, the rowdy patrons of Jacksonville Beach transplant to the pristine grounds of Ponte Vedra’s most precious gem. And the results were hilarious.
A few things I heard walking though the crowd:
“Dude, didn’t you go to college? You don’t know how to double-fist [a reference to drinking two beers at the same time]. Let me show you how to double-fist.”
“He hit it in the water. Does that mean he’s out?”
“Streelman. You hit it off the wood. That’s why you’re the woodman!”
Tour players shouldn’t look at the Island Green as an aberration – they should welcome it. Yes, it’s a bit of a stunt, but as Saturday’s play showed, it’s a challenge that they can all easily handle. And for the fans, it’s a lot of fun. And that’s what PGA Tour events should be about.