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Players 2023: A Sunday ace at Sawgrass' island 17th continues a record week

March 12, 2023
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH — There are occasions when running hot after a blow-up hole pays off. That’s how Alex Smalley ended up notching the third ace of the week on Sunday at the par-3 17th island hole at TPC Sawgrass.

Coming off a sloppy double-bogey at the par-5 16th, where he hit a wedge over the green into the water, Smalley, making his debut in this week’s Players Championship, decided to take dead aim at the pin at 17 with the very same club that just brought him disappointment.

“I made a mess of 16. Hit a wedge over the green in the water, and then hit one too many more putts than I wanted to. I figured I might as well just go right at it,” said Smalley, a slightly built 26-year-old Duke University product.

The famed hole at the Stadium Course was playing downwind on Sunday with the pin in the traditional final-round placement on the front-right portion of the green. Estimating that he had 118 yards to carry the front bunker, Smalley grabbed his 56-degree wedge and hit it hard, hoping to get some spin. His ball landed on the downslope over the bunker, took one huge hop, and flew into the cup.

After retrieving his ball from the hole, Smalley made a gesture like he was going to toss it in the water. No chance. “It was really neat. My caddie told me it would be pretty funny if I kind of fake threw it in the water, so I went ahead and listened to him,” said Smalley, who has four career holes-in-one, three in competition. “And there was no way I was teeing off on 18 with that ball, either. It's in my bag somewhere.”

Playing in his 24th Players, Jerry Kelly, Smalley’s partner, never had witnessed an ace in person at 17. Given the conditions, he didn’t think he was going to see one on Sunday, either. “The shot had to be perfect. And it was,” said the PGA Tour Champions player, who at age 56 became the oldest player to make the cut in the championship.

It’s been a special week for aces because there had never more than one at the 17th in the week of a championship. Smalley doubted there would be another one on Sunday, offering a rather detailed scouting report for what awaits players the remainder of the day.

“Anyone who hasn't been on the 17th green doesn't realize how much slope there is,” he said. “That front section of the green has got a lot of slope back down to the front towards the water, and then that right side where the pin was today, there's a lot of slope going left to right. I think this afternoon that hole is going to play tougher. Well, it was already playing tough today. But the greens are only going to get firmer.

“I think the wind might pick up a little bit more this afternoon, and like I said, the wind direction down and off the left, that back right section is going to get baked out, and it's going to be tough to hold the green. I wouldn't be surprised if there are a number of balls that hit on the green and don't hold that green on that back right section this afternoon.”

Among those who congratulated Smalley after the round was fellow player Chesson Hadley. Also on hand were Smalley’s parents, Terry and Maria, and his sister Katie. Dad was standing behind the tee at the time while Mom and sister were by the green.

“We’re all hoarse,” Terry said, his voice indeed gravelly. “What a memory for us to have.”

Smalley wasn’t thrilled with his finish, making bogey at the last for a closing two-over-par 74 that left him near the bottom of the board at one-over 289. But he figured, in the balance, he was lucky to be in action on the weekend, making the cut of two-over 146 on the number following a second-round 75.

“I was sweating it out Saturday morning, I guess, because … it was kind of teetering back and forth between two over and one over making the cut, and actually if there was one more person that finished ahead of me, I wouldn't have been here this weekend,” he said. “Felt kind of lucky to be here playing on Saturday and Sunday. Obviously didn't have a very good day today. Didn't play exactly how I wanted to. To play the weekend at my first Players, I feel pretty good about that.”

The other aces scored at 17 this week were Aaron Rai on Saturday and Hayden Buckley on Friday.