PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The Players Championship has all the ingredients of the fifth biggest tournament in golf.
It has the largest purse of any tournament at $9.5 million, with the winner getting nearly as much as Arnold Palmer earned in his PGA Tour career. From top to bottom, it has the strongest field of the year. The list of winners in 30 years at the TPC Sawgrass includes Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
But to all fans, and most players, mention the tournament and the first thing that comes to mind is an island.
The Players Championship begins Thursday, and there will be a steady stream of traffic through the gates and toward the 17th hole, with an island green that makes it one of the most infamous holes in the world.
By the weekend, it turns into the Jacksonville’s biggest sideshow this side of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party when Florida and Georgia play football.
“I think our pension is funded by beers sold on 17,” Paul Goydos said.
The signature hole on the TPC Sawgrass measures only 137 yards on the scorecard and is surrounded by water, an idea that Alice Dye drew up on the back of a cocktail napkin.
“It’s do-or-die, and I think spectators love that,” Luke Donald said. “Most of the other holes are pretty regular holes that you see week in and week out, but 17 is unique.”
The PGA Tour will offer live streaming on its website at the 17th, and asked several players their strategy on the hole. Lucas Glover spoke for most when he said, “Hit it where I can hit it again.”
The island green is so much a part of the tournament that NBC Sports is devoting 11 cameras to the hole, which includes two periscope cams out of the water that can turn 360 degrees.
The 17th green rarely decides who wins, rather who loses.
The PGA Tour decided to make the 17th the sudden-death playoff hole in 2008. Sergio Garcia hit the green, Goydos did not. Sean O’Hair was two shots behind Phil Mickelson in 2007 when his 9-iron carried just enough over the green – all it takes is an inch – and went into the water. He went from second place to 11th place, a difference of $747,000.
Tiger Woods holed a 60-footer that broke to the right, to the left and back to the right in the third round when he won The Players Championship, still one of the most famous moments. Fred Couples has twice knocked it in from the tee box – once for an ace, once for a par after his first shot went into the water.
“I think 17, any other day, wouldn’t be too difficult because of the short iron,” Masters champions Charl Schwartzel said. “But there’s such a big hype about it, and you get so many people sitting around it that I think that starts becoming the big, big factor around there.”
The hype is so strong about the 17th that the rest of the course often gets ignored. And while the PGA Tour touts so much about its championship event, it is largely defined by a single hole.
For most of the fans, the splash is as entertaining as any good shot.
“It’s an infamous type of vibe about the hole, which is good because it raises the tournament profile,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “But it’s probably bad because it’s a little bit of a lottery for the second-to-last hole of maybe the fifth most important tournament.
“Sergio hit one of the most quality iron shots anyone has seen to win a playoff. Sean O’Hair hit a shot only 4 yards further in the air and went from second place to 11th. For 70 holes, he was the second-best player and he finishes 11th. Is that right?” he added. “They’re lucky someone hasn’t been winning and did that.”
Goydos said the hole is short enough that it can get away with being a bit different.
“It would be in an awkward spot if it were a 3-iron,” he said. “We’re asking guys to be the players’ champion, and were asking him to hit a short iron into a green.”
The island green again will be a big part of the story when The Players Championship gets under way, along with several subplots.
Woods, who has only one finish in the top 10 since his win 10 years ago, returns with as many questions about his health as the longest winning drought in his career, now on 18 months. He missed last week because of minor injuries to his left knee and Achilles. After playing another nine-hole practice round Wednesday, he reported only “minimal” swelling.
The defending champion is Tim Clark, who has only played two tournaments this year as he tries to recover from an elbow injury.
The Players Championship offers the most world ranking points outside the majors, even without the No. 1 player in the world. Lee Westwood decided not to compete this year, at first over a dispute with the PGA Tour’s membership policies, later saying it didn’t fit into his schedule. Also skipping is Rory McIlroy, who said he wasn’t comfortable on the course.
Westwood could lose the ever-changing No. 1 ranking to Martin Kaymer, Donald or Phil Mickelson if they were to win. Kaymer also could return to No. 1 if he is the runner-up.
Asked if missing the No. 1 player was a detraction from the tournament, Goydos said, “I think it’s a detraction to him, not us.”
Yes, the show will go on, and the 17th hole figures to be a big part of the story.
Several players were asked where they would go to watch if they were spectators. All of them mentioned the 17th – not just for the par 3, but to see the second shot on the par-5 16th, and the tee shot on the 18th.
“On 16 you can make a 3 or a 6,” Dustin Johnson said. “On 17, you can make a 2 or an 8.”