Amid Changes Island Green Still Looms Largest

By Associated PressMay 8, 2007, 4:00 pm
2007 THE PLAYERSPONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Tiger Woods hasn't seen the TPC Sawgrass look like this since he won the U.S. Amateur in 1994 before heading off to college. Phil Mickelson joined a chorus of players who were thrilled by the pristine condition.
 
Indeed, the PGA TOUR spared no expense -- more than $50 million -- for a massive upgrade at THE PLAYERS Championship.
 
Most of it went into the clubhouse, a Mediterranean Revival style covering 77,000 square feet. The Stadium Course was refurbished to add a sand base to the fairway for better drainage, and pumps under every green to keep them firm and fast in any weather.
 
It's almost like a brand new tournament.
 
Except for that island.
 
Despite all the changes, the signature hole -- the signature moment -- of THE PLAYERS Championship still captivates the gallery and intimidates even the best players in the world.
 
Adam Scott had a two-shot lead in 2004 when he came to the 137-yard island hole in the final round and was so nervous he stood with his back to the green.
 
'I didn't really want to think about it more than I had to,' he said.
 
Scott wound up hitting wedge to 25 feet and getting his par, which is all he wanted.
 
Phil Mickelson played a practice round Tuesday, and it took him six shots to hit the green. It wasn't as bad as he made it sound. One hit the fringe. Another settled in the rough. One came up short and into the water. One bounced off the green and into the water. The fifth one flew the island into the water.
 
'And one ended up 10 feet,' he said. 'So, with a couple-shot penalty along the way, what is that, 12? Nice.'
 
Two years ago, when every shot counted, Bob Tway was four shots out of the lead when he put four balls into the water on the 17th and walked away with a 12, the highest score ever on that hole in competition.
 
But that's the very reason Tiger Woods is no fan of the 17th green -- more because of its place in the tournament than its location in the middle of a lake. Woods has one of the more memorable birdies, a 60-foot putt that broke three directions and dropped into the cup in the third round of 2001, when he won his only PLAYERS Championship.
 
'I've always thought that hole is too gimmicky for the 17th hole of a championship,' Woods said. 'I think that would be a fantastic eighth hole, but not as the 71st hole of a tournament, or 17th hole of your round.'
 
Tway was tied for 10th when he first stuck a tee in the ground. He was tied for 72nd when he finally retrieved his ball from the cup.
 
Len Mattiace was challenging for the lead on Sunday in 1998 until hitting two into the water -- one off the tree, the other a skulled shot out of the bunker -- and took 8.
 
'I think that the 12th at Augusta is the hardest par 3 to make a par,' Mickelson said. 'But the 17th here at the TPC is one of the most difficult because ... there's not a cap on how high you can go.'
 
Jack Nicklaus is the only three-time winner of THE PLAYERS, although never on the TPC Sawgrass. He still played 10 times on the Stadium Course, and some of the golf courses he has designed have holes that somewhat resemble an island green.
 
'You knew you were in trouble when you got on the tee,' Nicklaus said. 'Sooner or later, it was going to get you. And it was going to get you good, probably. When you're playing at noon on Sunday at the 17th hole, you knew you weren't much of a factor and you could care less if you hit it in the water. You didn't want to hit it in at 6 o'clock on Saturday or Sunday.'
 
Nicklaus has his concerns about the placement of the hole.
 
No doubt it adds excitement for thousands of fans who care about little else that seeing one train wreck after another. In another sense, it almost detracts from the other holes that Pete Dye designed.
 
Then again, if it was placed where Woods prefers -- No. 8 instead of No. 17 -- it might not be as big of a deal.
 
'I think that's what makes an exciting and great hole -- and I think it is a great hole -- is that it's in a position where it creates controversy,' Nicklaus said. 'That's the whole idea. You just wonder whether a tournament should be determined by that much of a think at that point in time.'
 
Scott escaped with par the year he won, saving his excitement for the 18th hole when he hooked a 6-iron into the water from the middle of the fairway and had to get up-and-down for bogey for a one-shot win.
 
'The finishing holes here are probably the feature of the golf course,' Scott said. 'Playing it is not that much fun, but to watch it is probably a lot of fun. It's a gimmick to have an island green like that, but it serves a purpose here.'
 
It has become the identity of THE PLAYERS Championship, more noteworthy than the strong field, the $9 million purse and even more fun to debate than whether this is the fifth major.
 
So much talk for the shortest hole on the golf course.
 
Blame that on an island.
 
'If that was just a bunker around it and not water, you'd probably find more people would hit it on the grass,' Geoff Ogilvy said. 'There's something about water that does it to people. It's a fun hole. I'm glad it's here. You wouldn't design an island hole on every course in the world, but it seems to work here. It's cool.'
 
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