Bogey Man: How I Survived the Scariest Hole in Golf
The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass (near Jacksonville, Florida) ends in a scary trio known as 'The Gauntlet' – and nothing's more frightful than the nightmare 17th
“How were your eggs this morning? Were they fluffy, were they good?”
This is my caddie Scott Corliss. He moonlights at the TPC Sawgrass golf course in Ponte Vedra, Florida, when he isn’t carrying PGA Tour veteran Billy Mayfair’s clubs. He’s trying to distract me from the 12-foot putt at hand.
There’s not a big payday riding on the outcome. But I’ve asked Corliss to counsel me the same way he would talk with Mayfair to sooth his nerves over a million-dollar putt. Corliss’s psychological trick completely takes my mind off the magnitude of the task at hand, and my ball plunks into hole No. 15.
Corliss has vanquished my recurring case of the yips just as my group approaches the beating heart of the “The Gauntlet,” the nickname for the notorious trio of finishing holes at TPC Sawgrass’s Stadium course. It is this storied and mettle-testing stanza at the tail of a round that allows the Stadium course to command its hefty $495 green fee.
Courtesy St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and The Beaches
Especially fearsome is hole 17, a par-3 that golf fans will recognize instantly thanks to its “island” green (technically a peninsula) surrounded by a wide moat. It’s a peculiar configuration that routinely thrashes elite golfers’ dreams of topping the leaderboard. Staring down the tiered green pancake a mere 121 yards away (it’s 137 from the tips), it can seem puzzling that this test of aiming ability is culpable for thousands of ruined televised rounds over the years at the Players Championship.
Then you step into the tee box. As soon as I set foot in no. 17, a cold shiver of sheer dread runs down my spine. This is the Freddy Krueger of golf holes, a monster that makes double bogeys. From the moment you tee off your round, the countdown begins and the dastardly island looms as large as the inevitable twist in an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
Mark Calcavecchia aptly compared the Players Championship’s serial killer of rounds to an afternoon 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,” he once told the Washington Post.
The longer you stare down toward the hole, the more the mitigating factors begin to come into play. Sure, there are 3,912 square-feet of flat and dry real estate to shoot for, but even if the flag isn’t flapping in the wind, careful club selection is still crucial. And then there’s that the putting surface, which can be as firm and fast as glass. So you’re going to need to stick it. For amateurs, a dry landing is cause for a short celebration.
Courtesy PGA Tour
Before I even address my ball, my peripheral vision fills with thousands of imaginary fans camped out all around the stadium course. Sure, they’re not really there, but the mere thought causes my shoulders to tense up. Then there’s that seven-figure bank balance bounce in store for the player who tops the leaderboard – another thought that can interrupt a swing.
A second later, back in the real world, my first ball submerges into the pond, a couple of feet short of the front edge of the green.
A splash landing is the most common comeuppance and my eventual double bogey puts me in good company.In May 2007, during the Players Championship, the field of PGA stars deep-sixed a record 50 balls on No. 17 in a single round.
As for how mere golf mortals typically play it, consider what happened during the festivities surrounding Super Bowl XXXIX in nearby Jacksonville. Pro athletes from baseball, football and NASCAR competed to see who could land their ball closest to the pin. Race car driver Dale Jarrett won the contest. He was also the only one who landed on the green.
Nothing was riding on my final putt, not even a friendly wager for a beer on the 19th hole. But this is a hole where so many fortunes have been won and lost. As a fan of the game’s history I couldn’t help but deliberate for a few extra beats. Sportscaster Gary Koch’s legendary “better than most…better than most” call replayed in my head; 15 years ago, it had accompanied the journey of Tiger Woods’ extraordinary, famous downhill 60-foot birdie putt.
Thankfully I had no need to replicate such heroics standing a mere five-and-change-feet from the cup. Still, when it plunked in for a double bogey, I paid tribute to Tiger by gleefully punching the sky.