Originally created 03/28/04

Island gauntlet: The par-3 17th



PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - The undisputed favorite of every Players Championship is not Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh or Adam Scott.

It's not a golfer at all. It's a hole. And not even a big one at that. It's the shortest hole on the course - an Ian Woosnam of a par 3. It is talked about so much and televised so often that it might as well be dubbed the 17th Wonder of the World.

It is the 17th hole at Sawgrass - the infamous island green of the Stadium Course. It is architect Pete Dye's accidental afterthought - suggested by his wife, Alice - that overwhelms everything about the Players Championship. It saturates all coverage of the event.

Whether you think it's a masterpiece or is missing a windmill, the 17th is darn good theater.

"The 17th was made for you guys," Sawgrass resident Frank Lickliter II said. "It was made so you guys could come here and write beautiful stories about it."

The 17th hole was made for TV and the average hacker, really. A true conversation piece. If you tell anyone you've played the Stadium Course, the first thing you'll be asked is what you did on the 17th. (For the record, I hit the center of the green and parred it in my only attempt in 1999, salvaging an otherwise forgettable round.)

But for the pros, it's a mildly annoying novelty. The degree of difficulty is not high - just 143 yards to a fairly large green - but the margin of error is zero. The punishment for missing is grave.

"I equate it to walking a balance beam," said Phil Mickelson. "You can walk a balance beam no problem a foot off the ground. Raise it to 10 stories it looks different, but it's still the same task."

Just ask Charles Howell how easy it is to fall off. I would have asked him on Friday, except I value my health and well-being too much to have approached the young man holding golf clubs after the 17th ruined his week. Howell hit what most of us would consider a perfect shot, a wedge that hit just 10 feet past the front pin and sucked back toward the cup. It rolled within inches of an ace, picked up speed, crossed the apron, bounced over the thick rough collar, off the wooden pilings and splashed down.

Howell's third shot from the drop area bounced off the back of the green and into the water again. He swallowed a quadruple-bogey and missed the cut.

"It's kind of goofy for the guys that can't control their spin of the golf ball," said Lickliter, taking a shot at Howell's shot selection.

The 17th hole has burned Tiger this week. On Thursday he air-mailed the green with what he thought was a dead-on tee shot.

"What the ... that was a perfect shot," he barked.

Woods saved bogey, but bogeyed the 17th again Saturday as part of a staggering finish that left him six shots off the lead.

The 17th hole may be the most famous par-3 in the world. But it should never be confused with the best. To compare it to No. 12 at Augusta National or No. 16 at Cypress Point or the Postage Stamp at Troon or No. 7 at Pebble Beach or No. 5 at Pine Valley is a stretch. Those are beautifully designed holes that not only test a golfer's nerve but artfully (not artificially) enhance their environments.

The 12th at Augusta is a Monet. The 17th at Sawgrass is a Salvador Dali.

"It's just one more hole in the hundreds of thousands of holes I'll play in my life," said Lickliter.

Let's see if he says that when he's one of the last two leaders to play it today with $8 million on the line.

The 17th is high drama, especially if you relish train wrecks. Few par 3s in the world yield more double bogeys or worse at a more crucial stage of a tournament. Len Mattiace once blew a Players there with a Sunday 8. Robert Gamez set the tournament record with a four-splash 11 in 1990.

If the wind is up today, the 17th will again be favored to figure prominently in the balance.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.