Heaven and hell on 17

By Brian Keogh

Darren Clarke says he once closed his eyes every time he played it. Padraig Harrington admits it's all duck or no dinner.

When The Players Championship comes round, all talk turns to the infamous, island green 17th at Sawgrass.

But nobody is blaming Alice, the wife of course architect Pete Dye and the woman responsible for hole that gobbles 150,000 balls a year.

Originally intended to be bordered by water on the right side only, the hole evolved purely by chance.

As Dye was building the course on swampland, a huge deposit of sand was discovered in the area that would become the 17th.

After the sand was harvested and used to create the 15th and 16th, Dye was left with a gaping hole in the ground and an even larger dilemma.

Dye recalled: "We had this big hole in the ground without any green. Alice said, 'Why not just make an island green?' I said, 'I dunno.'

"It always was supposed to have been a par 3. It was to have a lagoon of some variety, but I really didn't have any concrete prepared plan."

The most terrifying 137 yards in golf was born and it will wreak havoc again this week as the world's top players bid for the biggest first prize in golf - a massive $1.44 million.

Clarke has had everything on the hole from a two to a six.

But he admits that there is huge entertainment value in a hole that Tiger Woods this week described as "too gimmicky."

Clarke said: "I think it's a great hole for the people to watch. Sometimes I would love to be watching it myself.

"And I actually do. When I have an early tee-off time I go back and get in front of the TV. Whether I laugh depends on how I have done on the hole.

"It plays havoc with your mind. I've been in the water at the back, on both sides and at the front of the green.

"I've hit the green and spun off it. I have had every score from two to six."

The 17th green is 90 feet deep, 87 feet wide across the back and 50 feet wide across the front.

A ridge dissects the middle of the green with a two-foot drop from the upper rear to the lower front.

There is also a lower tier on the back right - a foot lower than the upper level - which is exactly where you can expect to find the Sunday pin placement.

After finishing sixth at Sawgrass in 2003, Clarke admitted: "I must have closed my eyes every time I played the 17th that week."

The problem with the hole is not just the fact that you can run up a huge number but the stark reality that there is no time to recover from a disaster with a run of birdies.

As Woods pointed out: "I've always thought that hole is too gimmicky for the 17th hole of a championship. I think that would be a fantastic eighth hole, but not as the 71st hole of a tournament, or 17th hole of your round."

Even Phil Mickelson, one of the greatest short iron players in the history of the game, has had his problems there.

The world No 3 took six attempts to get the ball on the green when it played into a stiff wind in practice this week.

On his attempts to find the green with an eight-iron, Lefty said: "The same club was coming up short. The same club was going long. The wind was varying. And finally the wind stayed about right and I got one on the surface.

"I had one on the fringe. One on the rough. One bounced short back in the water. One bounced over. One flew over. And one ended up ten feet. So with a couple-shot penalty along the way, what is that, 12? Nice.

"I think that the 12th at Augusta is the hardest par-three to make a par. 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.

"Most holes, most every golf hole in all of golf has one side that's a severe penalty and the other side that's open, that's playable. And this is one of the few holes that I can think of that has no bail-out, that has no margin of error, that has no area for recovery. It's an all-or-nothing type shot. Very few holes have that, are like that."

Harrington agrees with Mickelson's assessment, adding that it's "all duck or no dinner.

He said: "I think the 13th is a tougher par three but 17 is more intimidating. The issue with 13 and holes like that is that you are more likely, if you don’t hit a good shot, to make bogey.

"But bogey doesn’t come into it on 17, it is double bogey. And you hit it in there once then you have to hit it in there again. The shot doesn’t get any easier.

"So 17 is all duck and no dinner. On the eighth hole , if you miss the green you have a chance of chipping and putting.

"But on 17 if you miss the green you have no chance of chipping and putting. You have to be really good to be able to chip and putt out of the water."

Only one player has made a hole-in-one for par at The Players - Fred Couples dumping his first in the water in 1999 before flying a nine-iron into the hole for a par.

Only Steve Elkington and Fred Funk have made bogey on the hole and gone on to lift the Waterford Crystal trophy awarded to the winner.

Around 150,000 balls end up in the water on the 17th during the course of the 40,000 rounds that are played on the course every year.

The record high - a 66 - was posted 22 years ago by Angelo Spagnolo, a grocery store manager from Fayette City in Pennsylvania, during the "America's Worst Avid Golfer" contest.

Spagnolo, 31, hit 27 balls in the water from the tee box and the drop zone before rules officials finally directed him to putt around the hazard and down the narrow path that leads to the green.

Former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman dubbed the path "Angelo's Alley" after Spagnolo shot 257 to "win" the title.

Quotes on 17

Mark Calcavecchia: "It is like having a 3 o'clock appointment for a root canal. You're thinking about it all morning and you feel bad all day. You kind of know sooner or later you've got to get to it."

Tiger Woods: "When you play 17 on Tuesday and Wednesday, it's a pretty easy hole, a little flip nine-iron, no big deal. You get out there in the tournament, all of a sudden there's a pin location that's tucked in the corner or over a slope, and the green seems to shrink up a little bit.

"You know you've got to step up there and be committed. The hardest thing about that hole is that you need to be committed on the shot and you know you can't really hit a poor shot and get away with it."

Course designer Pete Dye: "I don't think any of us really thought of the 17th hole. It just kind of arrived. We just kept digging. Actually, I think my wife Alice came out one day, looked at the area and said let's just make it an island green."

Superintendent Fred Klauk on the approximate 150,000 balls that are annually hit into the water on 17: "I rode up behind the tee one day and watched a man pull out a dozen new Titleists and promptly hit every one of them in the water. He didn't give it a second thought."