They stand on the tee box, a good round nearly complete, and looming in front lies the expanse -- 121 yards of black water surrounding a tiny, manmade island.
The 17th hole at the Stadium Course. It is, by many accounts, the most famous hole in golf, and it will be the most-watched hole at The Players Championship, beginning Thursday.
'It's probably the one hole in golf that most people want to play, to see if they can do it,' defending champion Davis Love said.
Players, good and bad, dunk an estimated 150,000 balls into the murky waters each year; that's a little more than three for every round played. For four days, the pros take over and fare better. But they're far from perfect.
Love got the thing right last year. He carried a five-stroke lead into the final two holes and suddenly, 17 didn't seem so daunting.
But with the wind blowing? With the one-stroke lead and the tournament on the line? That's when No. 17, ranked only the ninth-toughest hole on the Stadium Course, becomes anything but average.
'When the wind's not blowing, it's no problem,' Love said. 'As soon as the wind starts blowing, we start calling it Mickey Mouse or carnival.'
It's the most photographed hole in the world and has its own Web site, culture and a betting rigamarole that would keep the most seasoned bookie busy. Tickets for this tournament aren't that hard to get. But for a seat on the grassy mounds surrounding No. 17, it pays to arrive early.
NBC will use 10 cameras to cover action on the hole, including one from the tiny bunker that fronts the green.
'I wish they had a heart monitor and a blood-pressure machine there,' analyst Johnny Miller said.
Phil Mickelson calls No. 17 'a birdie' hole on the one hand, but concedes there is trepidation.
'I equate it to walking a balance beam,' he said. 'You can walk a balance beam no problem, a foot off the ground. But raise it to 10 stories and it looks different.'
So many players have fallen off over the years.
Len Mattiace was one stroke off the lead when he stepped up to the 17th hole on a Sunday in 1998. Two water balls later -- including one he flew up and over the green from the greenside bunker -- and he had made an 8.
Remember Scott Gump? He was pressing David Duval for the championship in 1999. He lost by two and the difference was a water ball on No. 17. Hardly anyone ever heard from him again.
'It's a crazy game,' Gump said after the round.
There are other ways this hole can get a guy. A few years ago, Fred Couples rolled one right into the cup from the tee box ... for a 3. His first shot went in that other hole, the water. Of course, Couples has also made a real hole-in-one there, too.
The 17th is only one part of a layout, designed by Pete Dye, that makes The Players Championship one of the toughest tests in golf. Not only does it annually have the toughest field -- 80 of the top 100 will be here this year -- but its heavy rough, contoured greens and demanding targets require almost every player to use almost every club in the bag.
The winner will earn $1.35 million, the richest purse on tour, and to hear the players tell it, the money will be well earned.
'It tests all aspects of the game and all aspects mentally,' Love said.
Nowhere does the mental challenge loom larger than on 17.
On a calm day, with no water, a 137-yard shot is almost as routine as a tap-in putt for the pros. But it's not always calm in Ponte Vedra. And there is water. And pressure. That's why the hole defines the tournament.
'When you're one shot behind coming in the last day, you see the pin, you don't see the green, that way you hit a better shot,' Vijay Singh said. 'So it's got a lot to do with the mind, and it's just a very intimidating hole to play.'
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