Ask just about any golf tour star their greatest fear and it’s quite simple—humiliation on the world stage with everyone seeing the meltdown in excruciating detail. Unlike team events which permit individuals the dignity in having fellow teammates sharing the moment—good or bad—in golf there’s no one else. The bright hot light falls squarely on the player alone, no shadows obscuring the moment.
The recently played Masters has its “Amen Corner,” holes 11 thru 13. This famous stretch of holes can catapult contenders into possible champions. Conversely, those same holes can damage hopes too. The good news is after playing 13 there’s still time to recover for the final five holes.
That’s not the case at The Players Championship (May 8-11) at the famed TPC / Sawgrass course. The PGA Tour doesn’t sponsor any of the four majors, but The Players has become the Tour’s flagship event and nothing has cemented the event more than the final three holes there. Architect Pete Dye was engaged by then Commissioner Deane Beaman to create a course that would get golf fans excited and cause a good bit of ojida for the players.
No matter how well a player is playing, the thought of the final three holes is always on the brain. The par-5 16th is roughly 523 yards and can be reached in two strokes by nearly all the players provided the drive finds the fairway on the slight dog-leg left hole. The green is well-contoured into different sections and a slight tug to the left on the 2nd shot can mean a very tough 3rd to get close enough for a birdie try. Push the 2nd shot right and it finds a protecting pond on that side.
That same pond comes into play on the layout’s signature hole—the par-3 17th. Golf has a number of famed holes: The Road Hole at St. Andrews, the 16th at Cypress Point, the 18th at Carnoustie, the 18th at Riviera, to name just a few. However, the 17th at TPC / Sawgrass is a hole that appeals to the broader masses of golfers because it’s a short hole (137 yards) and on its face should pose no issue for the world’s finest players. Pete’s wife Alice suggested an island target with water on all sides. Although initially ambivalent at first Pete went ahead with it and his career in course design became richer— figuratively and literally. The best man for the job proved to be a woman—hats off to Alice indeed.
Over the years the list of humiliated players has grown and with that the overall reputation of the hole has become even more noted, or to be a bit more direct, feared.
You either hit the green or reload another ball from the drop area. There’s no in-between—no ducking the task at-hand.
NBC which televises the event places no less than 11 cameras for the 17th. The hole—more than any player— has become the star attraction. One might presume 137 yards for world class standing professionals is easily handled. Guess again. Under the pressure of winning one of the game’s biggest events, the words from the song from the late Bobby Darin ring ever true, “splish splash I was taking a bath.” How many balls? It’s estimated roughly 100,000 balls are plucked out each year—the bulk coming from the multitude of ordinary players providing their own personal donation. In one round in The Players in 2007, no less than 50 balls from the world’s best found the “golf locker” called Davy Jones. The final round pin position is routinely tucked into the far right corner—the equivalent of landing a 747 on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Of course, there’s plenty of green to find for those looking for total safety but the green is no slouch and can easily inflict a quick three-putt for the balkiest of putters.
To make matters even more challenging is the final hole— a terrifying long par-4 of 462 yards with H20 hugging the left side of the fairway as tight as any four-year-old holding a parent when heading to school for the first time. The finale gently turns left and often players will completely bailout and block tee shots to the far right. This only increases the pressure, the length and angle for the approach shot. The Sunday pin is usually tucked into the far left corner—the slightest pull to the left means a wet ending and near certain curtain call—the one where the curtain crashes on the player.
No annual golf event provides the kind of sink-or-swim feelings one will see this week. The only bubbles tour players want to see is the kind from a champagne glass toasting victory. Unfortunately, for a good number of others, the bubbles will be of a far different kind. Any scuba suits on sale this week?
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.