Happell: 17th at Sawgrass - Great or Gimmick?

Few holes offer as much drama as the 17th hole on TPC Sawgrass' Stadium Course in Florida, USA.
It’s become the most talked-about hole in golf, more so than the 12th at Augusta, the 16th at Cypress Point, the Road Hole at St Andrews, the long 18th at Carnoustie or the Postage Stamp at Royal Troon.

From the time it was designed in the late 1970s by Pete Dye, the island-green, par-three 17th hole at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course in Florida has attracted controversy.

Not because it’s a unique design – island greens have come and gone before – but because the punishment for a slightly mishit or misjudged shot is totally out of whack with the ‘crime’.

Hit a clunky shot at virtually any other par-three on the planet and you might end up on the apron, or in rough, or sand, or heather, or ti-tree. Here, there’s no doubt about where you’ll end up – in water, from where you’ll have to take a penalty shot and re-load.  

That’s why a debate rages: should such a boom-or-bust hole feature so late in a round at a tournament as prestigious as the Players Championship?

In one sense, it’s a straight-away par three of 137 yards (125 metres) – some sort of wedge for most players – to a generously proportioned green.

In another sense, it’s a gimmick, a tricked-up made-for-TV contrivance that is played in front of an amphitheatre of masochists. 

J.B. Holmes, the Players Championship’s 54-hole leader heading into this morning’s final round, became the hole’s latest casualty when he plonked two shots into the water on the way to a quintuple-bogey eight – and final placing of 41st. Fellow American Zac Blair had a nine the previous day, after three visits to the water.     

Yet the man whom Holmes played alongside over the final round, co-leader Kyle Stanley, managed to birdie the hole on each of the four days, becoming only the second person in Players history after Paul Azinger in 1987 to achieve that feat.  

The eventual winner, Korea’s Si Woo Kim, scored a creditable par, bogey, birdie, par over the four rounds at No.17 – and you’d struggle to find a player in the field who wouldn’t have taken that sequence at the start of the week.

Since its unveiling in 1980, Sawgrass’ 17th has had a long and colourful history: some players love it, others can’t wait to see the bulldozers move in and get rid of the damn thing.  

After early complaints from some of the leading tour pros, Dye redesigned the green. But that didn’t help much in 1984 when winds blew up to 65 kilometres an hour during the first round, causing chaos. The stroke average on No. 17 that day was 3.853, and 64 balls were hit in the water, a one-day record that still stands. 

American Tom Lehman has played the hole just about as well as anyone since Dye first inflicted it on the world. The 1996 Open champion managed to avoid the water in 61 of his 62 career attempts at No.17, while going 11 under par.

But his fellow-American Jim Colbert, who competed in six Players’ at TPC Sawgrass, used to try to appease the golf gods by tossing four balls in the lake before the tournament began.

Larry Dorman of The New York Times once described the shallow body of water as "Lake Balata", in honour of the soft, wound balls that pros once used. It is said that members and guests deposit more than 200,000 balls a year in the lake.

Tiger Woods, who has among the poorer cumulative records at No. 17, has suggested the hole is too severe to be the penultimate hole on the layout.

“I’ve always thought that hole is too gimmicky for the 17th hole of a championship,’’ Woods said. “I think that would be a fantastic eighth hole, but not as the 71st hole of a tournament, or 17th hole of your round.’’

Australians have played a significant part in the hole’s history, too.

For a long time, Robert Allenby held the record for the number of consecutive rounds (36) in which he avoided the water at No.17.And Marc Leishman is currently in the middle of a perfect 26-for-26 greens-hit streak since his first Players start in 2010.

Geoff Ogilvy, a budding course designer and partner in the Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead golf course architecture firm, is an avowed fan.

“If that was just a bunker around it and not water, you’d probably find more people would hit it on the grass,’’ he said. “There’s something about water that does it to people. It’s a fun hole. I’m glad it’s here. You wouldn’t design an island hole on every course in the world, but it seems to work here. It’s cool.’’  

Yet Aaron Baddeley, who was in the field this week, has found the water more than just about any other player. He’s played the 17th 40 times and splashed down with 13 of those shots – a water-ball strike rate of 32.5 per cent. 

Ever the contrarian, Greg Norman won’t hear about the hole being too hard for the players – he said he’d like to see it lengthened a bit due to modern distances.

In response to the criticism, Pete Dye himself has said: “Golf is not a fair game, so why build a course fair?”

Wherever you sit on this debate, and there are passionate arguments on both sides, one thing is clear: The hole is massively popular with the fans and TV execs. And for that reason alone, perhaps the Australasian PGA Tour could take a leaf out of the TPC’s book and organise a similarly tantalising, if ghoulish, hole to end one of its regular events. 

At a time when the business of marketing and promoting golf has never been more critical, tour officials can’t afford to be squeamish. It’s time they thought about designing a radical hole that gets people talking and attracts a whole new audience to tournament golf.


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