The Players Championship
Beyond its deserved legacy as pro golf's crash-and-burn center, the 17th at TPC Sawgrass is where the PGA Tour fuses shotmaking and entertainment
The magnitude of golf's equivalent to Madison Square Garden sets in with the 123-pace walk to the 17th hole's lakefront tee.
"You definitely get butterflies walking to that tee regardless of your position in the field," said South African Tim Clark, who strode from the 16th green to the next-to-last hole of the 2010 Players with a two-stroke lead.
Yet it's not just the nerve-wracking sight of a bulkhead-supported isle of terror that has transformed the infamous one-shotter into a national golf treasure. For all of the Pete Dye-chutzpah and power of persuasion that gave birth to the hole, it's the 28 years of refinement and goodness-knows-how-many thousands of PGA Tour memos that have transported up to 15,000 on-site spectators and millions of fans worldwide on a once-a-year ride like no other. Because from the time Players contestants hit the 10th tee they can hear the buzz at 17th City -- "It looms every day you go there," said Clark -- the entire spectacle shaped by an electrifying confluence of fans, 25-foot-high chalets, cutting-edge technology and, most of all, the sweat of unheralded workers. Love it or hate it, the penultimate hole is the ultimate stage in golf.
Most paying customers enter the Players from a parking lot just off the 17th tee and never get beyond the 137-yard par 3, thanks to the tour's significant investment in a hole-specific broadcast displayed on two 15 x 38 foot LED video boards. This "digital impression," as the PGA Tour's Steve Evans calls it, was envisioned to "make you feel like something big is happening." But because of the 17th green's severe contours, the live broadcast is often the only way many fans or the holes' 100 volunteer marshals can see what a ball is doing as it heads toward the hole, particularly Sunday's back-right location. Players even sometimes sneak a peek.
Zach Johnson, eyeing his tee shot teetering on the green's back edge during Sunday's final round, turned slightly left toward the board to confirm that his ball stayed dry. He can thank fiber-optic cable for that stress relief.
When fairways were sand-capped and stadium mounds re-sculpted in 2006 for better seating, fiber optics were installed to create nearly instantaneous video streaming. The investment was designed to make 17th-hole spectators feel as if they were watching golf in their living rooms.
Andrew Grout directs the 17th-hole broadcast from a small and unpretentious Oz-like booth sandwiched amid the hole's 54,000 square feet of corporate-tent space. Grout is an employee of Information & Display Systems, the company that crafted the software cultivating leader-board data, highlights from other holes and the ShotLink-fed putting distances players will face (assuming their tee shot found dry land). Data and images are sent into a "brainstorm machine" preparing the split-screen images Grout then punches onto the boards. And while he steps out for fresh air every now and then, his tournament days typically run from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
While much of the video presentation utilizes the PGA Tour's @17 Live online imagery, NBC's feed is occasionally interwoven into the video displayed for the fans on 17. Producer Tommy Roy surrounds the 17th with eight stationary cameras and also can fall back on a blimp shot or the "Steadicam," which follows players at ground level minus the shaky handheld images that only Steven Soderbergh could love. New for 2010 were HD shots to capture reactions from the 75-yard drop area along with another lake-placed rotating shot following players as they walked to and from the green. There was also a tiny camera embedded in the 17th hole's 55-square-foot bunker face.
New York-native Brian Phraner was one of the artists capturing images for NBC. He covers everything from the Olympics to the "Today Show," and has been doing camera work on the 17th hole's "tree island" since 1995. Phraner boats out for his nine or 10 hours of camera duties in a shabby blue canoe held together with gaffer's tape and powered by a tiny engine. During weekday play, he discreetly ships out when there's an appropriate gap in groups to avoid distracting players, then parks the rickety craft under a green-screen protected scaffolding. Just in case the boat's tiny engine decides to die during Players week -- or Phraner needs to fend off one of the lake's three resident alligators -- there is a small paddle on board.
Phraner captures the often unforgettable super slow-mo HD shots of 17th-tee player reactions along with tight shots of putts. And the inevitable question asked by most folks over a certain bladder-sensitive age?
"I certainly have less coffee in the morning here compared to other events," the 30-year NBC veteran said. "It's definitely been easier to get through the day since the move to May when it's hotter and you sweat a lot."
The network's Emmy-nominated sound-effects team encircles the 3,912-square foot green with a tailored cable, allowing technicians to hang 10 "lav" mics for capturing everything from balls hitting railroad ties or even the occasional player comment. (By comparison, a normal green gets two microphones.)
The mics are shifted daily to best suit the day's hole location, while another 20 cover the rest of the 16th and 17th hole arena. Sound-effects mixer Lawrence Cirillo mans a mind-bogglingly complex board to sift out the best sounds from the "constant din" caused by the large crowd. Still, he guarantees with the full microphone package that they will "capture things you don't usually hear," but must then hope that during particularly compelling moments the on-air talent "lays out" -- that's television code for shutting up.
Cirillo's dreams were likely dashed during Saturday's third round when Bo Van Pelt pulled his club at the tee and explained his dilemma to caddie Mark Chaney. Van Pelt's twang came through loud and clear:
"Just because I think it's going long, I think I gotta hit it so soft," Van Pelt told Chaney before looking at the club in his hands. "I know this is borderline, but I gotta hit it so frickin' good."
Van Pelt's wedge went back in the bag. Microphones were still open and listeners on the PGA Tour Radio Network, a fast-paced on-site earpiece available to fans for a $10 rental fee, heard the rest of the conversation. But on the NBC telecast, first Gary Koch, then Dan Hicks and for good measure, Johnny Miller, talked over more chatter, the loud crowd reaction to Van Pelt's continued indecisiveness and, eventually, the shot.