PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The scariest pitching wedge in the game took a PR hit Tuesday under ashen September skies. In fact, Pete Dye’s 145 yards of watery woe looked downright warm and fuzzy by the time the “Palmer Flight” at the Golf Channel Am Tour’s National Championship was finished.
Your correspondent has watched hardened PGA Tour players blink at the worst possible moment because of an ill-timed gust of wind and a golf hole with more street cred than Snoop Dogg.
In 2007 it was Sean O’Hair. You know him, the Presidents Cup hero and three-time Tour winner who pulled the wrong club on a spring Sunday three years ago and can still hear the splash.
Or Paul Goydos, one of this year’s “59” twins who charmed “Dirtbag” nation in 2008 only to get blown out of a playoff and into Dye’s drainage ditch. Each Wednesday during Players week a parade of Tour caddies take a hack for charity and chuckles and more often than not they’re swimming.
Legend has it the island 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course was actually the brainchild of Dye’s wife, Alice. But, for the likes of O’Hair and Goydos, it’s a tad late to start looking for someone to blame.
With history on our side we camped adjacent “Davey Dye’s Locker” Tuesday morning and waited for carnage and cruelty and more cringe moments than a liquid lunch with Larry David.
What chance did the 111 players of the National Championship’s “Palmer Flight” for handicaps between 4 and 7.9 have on Dye’s deathtrap, which has been known to stir Tour types from a deep sleep?
Yet as morning rain turned to afternoon muggy the lunatic luster of the 17th began to muddy like the waters surrounding the island green.
First there was Tony Scheuerman from Lake Elmo, Minn. An 8-iron to 5 feet for birdie. What’s the big deal?
“I enjoyed it more than I thought I would,” said Scheuerman as he nursed a Michelob Ultra in the palatial TPC clubhouse and enjoyed his week in north Florida, a birthday present from his wife, Zina.
In fact, forget Scheuerman’s third-round 84, he played the Stadium’s fearsome final three in 2 under par – birdie at the par-5 16th hole, birdie at the 17th and an All-Seve up-and-down from 86 yards at the last for par.
Next up was Jon Vanpoucke, who caught a piece of the cup with his pitching wedge tee shot that rolled to less than a foot for a tap in-2.
“Pitching wedge is my money club,” Vanpoucke said. “That green doesn’t scare me one bit.”
Somewhere Dye just spit out a mouthful of lemonade or angrily started diagramming more scruffy bunkers for Whistling Straits. Either way that is one sentence you will never hear in the spring at The Players.
To be fair the Stadium was playing more like it did at the March Players than it does at the May Players, that is to say soft and spongy, and Tuesday’s pin position at the 17th hole was six paces on and four paces from the left edge which in Tour talk is a “go pin.”
Still, by the end of a sultry day the numbers were undeniable. Of the 111 Palmer Flighters, 14 made birdie and 31 came in with more than respectable pars.
Even many of those who were treated to the full 17th did so in style. Matt McCathy from Colorado pitched his tee shot on the green about 10 feet right of the hole and watched helplessly as it spun off the putting surface, over the wooden bulkhead and into the soup. McCathy dropped his next shot into the water in front of the bunker before pitching to 4 feet from the drop zone.
“Solid (triple bogey) 6,” he smiled afterward.
Not everyone found the going as easy as Vanpoucke and company, however, and the consensus was the real-time 17th hole is much different than the HiDef version that is beamed across the globe in May.
If a television adds 10 pounds to people, cameras must tack on an extra acre or so according to Tuesday’s participants.
“The surface area looks a lot bigger on TV,” a wide-eyed McCathy said.
And if Tuesday’s play suggests the 17th hole is a bit overhyped that did little to help those who were playing the game’s most-talked-about 145 yards for the first time.
Scheuerman purchased an “app” for his iPhone for the event with a diagram of the hole and took a long hard look before finally settling on an 8-iron. And what pearl of wisdom did the app offer? “Start praying,” he smiled. “It’s so famous. You watch the pros and I just wanted a par. Please get on the green.”
Whether it is marketing or mind tricks, the 17th hole can get into a player’s head – be it in May playing for TPC glory or September for 19th hole bragging rights.
“It’s the only hole you start thinking about the night before,” said Jim Badovinac, who double bogeyed the 17th on Tuesday. “I called my son last night and said, ‘Be thinking of me a lot at about 11 a.m. because that’s when I should be playing the 17th.’ He was like, ‘Come on dad.’”
Now that’s what Pete Dye likes to hear.