May 8, 2009

(Pen)ultimate Challenge

Three out of four rounds at the Players Championship, the 17th at TPC Sawgrass is a fairly simple hole. The final round is a different story

The danger lurking at the 17th hole at Sawgrass is magnified in the final round of the Players.

The danger lurking at the 17th hole at Sawgrass is magnified in the final round of the Players.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The 17th hole at Sawgrass is the one with the all the swagger at the Players Championship, and on Sunday, it's the darling of NBC's telecast. There was no missing it Saturday -- par 3, front-center pin placement, 120 yards to a flagstick planted on a green that rises out of the water.

It scares the daylights out of a lot of golfers who have visions of golf balls bouncing like ping-pong lottery balls, then diving into water the color of bathtub ring and disappearing with a kerplunk.

Padraig Harrington said the 17th grabs your attention before you even get there.

"Making birdie at the 16th is not always the best thing," he said. "That means you have the honors at the 17th."

By reputation alone, the 17th is bone-chilling, and in the midst of Saturday's stir-fry conditions, that could almost sound inviting. The hole isn't very friendly, but if you look closer, it isn't that nasty, either. The difference is on Sunday, when a ball finding land or water can often be the difference between winning and losing.

Check the stats. Through two rounds, three other holes have seen more balls land in the water than the 17th -- the 4th, the 16th and the 18th. On Friday, the seventh had seven water balls compared to six at the 17th. Fewer golf balls have hit the water at the 17th so far than in the past five years. More telling: for the first time in 12 years, the 17th hole is averaging under par for the tournament.

An amphitheater-style grass seating area surrounds the 17th hole, which is also ringed by high-rise, metal viewing areas. From these vantage points, spectators have an unobstructed view of each shot. One of the most popular pastimes among fans, accompanied by beverages, is to wager whether each player will be closest to the pin. And, to tell the truth, there's nothing quite as exciting as a seemingly endless series of shots, where one of two things can happen: either the ball stays on the green or it doesn't.

This is high drama? On Sunday, it is. For instance, does anybody remember Rory McIlroy dunking one at the 17th on Thursday? Vaguely, maybe. What about Sean O'Hair drowning two golf balls there on Sunday two years ago and losing to Phil Mickelson? Can't forget that stuff.

Mickelson, who birdied the 17th on Saturday, said his view is that the hole is trouble no matter what day you're playing it.

"The feeling there is that you can lose the tournament in one swing even on Thursday," Mickelson said. "It's a very intimidating hole every day. You never want to give up on this tournament, even if you're three or four shots back, because of what can happen on the 17th."

It must be noted that players rarely say publicly that any hole is easy, probably figuring that if they do, the hole will remember the next time and eat their golf ball.

Matt Kuchar said the new style of Mini-Verde Bermuda grass on the greens has changed the way the hole plays. Kuchar, who made par Saturday at the 17th, said it's more difficult to stop the ball because the greens are firmer and faster. But the 17th isn't the only problem getting home, he said, identifying the 16th and 18th as trouble as well.

"You can find a train wreck without even looking for one," Kuchar said. "The shot at the 17th is tough, but it's not the only one."

Kenny Perry said he used to play an 8-iron or 9-iron into the 17th hole, but pitching wedge is the call these days because it's playing so much shorter. He made birdie Saturday. "A free-for-all," Perry said.

But Sunday?

"With the pressure of trying to win the Players on the line, that's an awesome hole," Perry said.

Harrington said Augusta National's par-3 12th during the Masters is a much more daunting proposal than the 17th at TPC Sawgrass, and for a good reason: The Masters is a major.

The reason golf balls hit the water isn't because players are aiming for the pin, Harrington said. It's because they're aiming for the middle of the green, they lose focus and they get distracted and they miss the shot.

It'll probably happen in Sunday's final round, when the pin will be in the back right of the green. Harrington, who made par there Saturday, said that's when the 17th will live up to its reputation.

"Face it, it's a lot easier to play if it's the first round and you've got three more rounds to go," he said. "When it's the 71st hole, it's not like you have a bad 17th but you can make four or five birdies in a row. It's the end."

Whatever you want to call the 17th, just make sure you pay attention to it on Sunday, Harrington said.

"It's never a blah hole."