The 17th at Sawgrass Rarely Decides a Winner, So Why All the Criticism?

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Mark Humphrey / AP

Fans watch at the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass watch The Players Championship golf tournament in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Thursday, May 8, 2008.

It’s the most talked about par 3 in golf every year, but the idea that it’s gimmicky or shouldn’t be used in a sudden-death playoff is weak.

Even non-golfers recognize the par-3 17th at Sawgrass. How could you not remember a green surrounded by nothing but water? Its 137 yards is a chip for pros, most of which use a wedge to knock it on. Most duffers could even land the green if it wasn’t for all that blue before their eyes. It scares the khakis off them.

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But if you look past the hype and fear surrounding the 17th, in the three decades that the Players Championship has been played at the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida—near Jacksonville—the hole has only decided a winner after the PGA Tour began using it in playoffs, in 2008. That year, Sergio Garcia and Paul Goydos squared off on the 17th. Garcia knocked it on the green while Goydos splashed it in the water. Match over.

Last year, David Toms lost on the 17th in a playoff to K.J. Choi, but that’s really only because Toms failed to make a routine 3 ½ foot par putt.

But that’s not to say that the 17th hasn’t hurt those chasing the leaders on Sunday. Len Mattiace made an 8 on the hole in 1998 when he was a shot back. More recently, but just as cringe-worthy, Sean O’Hair scored a 7 on the hole in 2007 as he tried to catch eventual winner Phil Mickelson.

Still, the par 3 is Sawgrass’s biggest draw on television, and attracts mobs of fans who attend the Players. (Goydos is quoted saying that “I think our pension is funded by beers sold on 17.”) And it’s one reason why the Players is consistently talked about as “the fifth major.” Sunday is always going to be exciting knowing that the 17th is awaiting.

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Over the years, the island green has received its share of criticism. In 2007, Tiger Woods famously dubbed the hole “gimmicky.” Even a few days ago, Tiger again said that while he likes the 17th, it should be moved to the front nine. Toms, perhaps not surprisingly, has also criticized the hole, saying it shouldn’t be played during sudden death.

But both arguments seem flawed. For one, considering the Players has never really been decided by the 17th outside of a playoff, Tiger’s point about how it shouldn’t be the 71st hole of a championship is debatable.

Regarding Toms’ similar criticism, what’s more sudden death than landing a ball in the water?

In a sport where many tournaments don’t draw mass viewers, and where the back nine of final rounds are often the only times people tune in, the 17th gives gives fans an enticing reason to watch.

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There’s a power that the island green holds. It’s the suspense of not knowing whether the ball, suspended in air for what often feels like more than mere seconds, is going to stay dry or destroy a player’s tournament in one swing.

The hole makes sense in its current location — the penultimate challenge — even in a sudden death playoff. We sit through enough boring 17s the rest of the year.

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