PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Mackenzie Hughes has never hit the ball in the water on the iconic island-green hole at TPC Sawgrass.
Off the tee, that is.
The Canadian – one of five in The Players Championship field this week, a record number – remembers his one “minor mishap,” when he cleared the water off the tee, but ended up in the bunker on the front-right portion of the safe area.
From there he hit it in the water.
The par-3 17th at TPC Sawgrass has taken on a life of its own as a hole that’s equal parts vexing, exhilarating and fun.
More than 100,000 balls per year find the drink (TPC Sawgrass is a public course, so people usually take more than one crack at it) and 45 balls were hit in the water at The Players last year. It’s only 140 yards from the back tee and it’s not technically an island – there is a little pathway that connects the green to the area en route to the par-4 18th – but it’s provided all kinds of unique shots and dramatic outcomes since The Players first came to TPC Sawgrass (located on 415 acres of land that was bought for just $1 by former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman in the late 1970s).
The hole has seen golfers hit off that little pathway and off the wooden rails that prop up the green in the pond. It’s seen a bird carry a ball into the water that had already landed safely on the green, dramatic hole-outs for par (Fred Couples dunked his third from the tee after putting his first attempt in the water) and only seven hole-in-ones (the most recent being in 2019 by Ryan Moore), one by Will Wilcox with a ball that was bright yellow.
But what makes the hole so special?
“Special is an interesting word,” said Hughes, of Dundas, Ont., with a laugh. “I would say it’s dramatic. It’s one of those holes that are a statement hole for a golf course.”
Indeed, tournament organizers re-jigged the entryway for spectators so the first thing they see when they arrive is the 17th, and for the last few years they’ve hosted a concert right on the hole. Most photos of TPC Sawgrass, if there is just one, show the island green and people from near and far come to play the course and patiently play the rest of the course for a chance to try their hand at one of the most iconic holes in the game (this reporter played TPC Sawgrass in January, with an opportunity to take a shot at the 17th in the dark prior to the real round the next day. I knocked it in the drink both times).
It’s the atmosphere that increases the hole’s difficulty.
“There are so many people surrounding it,” said Nick Taylor of Abbotsford, B.C. Taylor has won twice on the PGA Tour, including earlier this year at Pebble Beach, and was tied for 16th at The Players a year ago.
“If you look at it at face value, it’s 140 yards. It’s a wedge. When the wind is up, that’s the hard part. Any poor shot will probably be a double. The penalty is a lot more than most holes that long if you hit a poor shot.”
Hughes said the best play is to go at it conservatively. If he hits it in the middle of the green for four days in a row, he’s happy. Especially on Sunday when the pin is tucked so close to the edge of the green on the right-hand side it’s almost not fair.
“You could miss it by just 15 feet right of the hole on Sunday and you’re in the water,” said Hughes. “The hole itself is dramatic, and where it’s placed in the tournament coming down on the weekend … it’s one of those shots you have to be fully committed to.”
Rory McIlroy is the defending champion at The Players, and a year ago he needed to make a crucial par on the 17th with Jim Furyk nipping at his heels. He hit it to 32 feet and left his putt just a foot-and-a-half from the hole. He made it.
“If you surrounded that green with bunker or grass or whatever, it would be one of the easiest par-3s that we play all year,” said McIlroy. “But because of the water, there’s just an extra element of difficulty to it.
“If you walk away with four 3s there for the week, you’ve done pretty well.”
Another past champion, Webb Simpson, said he didn’t feel comfortable until he hit it on the green on 17. Good thing too – because he hit his approach to 18 in the water and finished with a double bogey. Although he ended up winning by four shots, he said the final stretch of holes could provide some fireworks.
“You’re not really thinking bad thoughts,” said Simpson. “But you’re thinking you’ve seen history. You’ve seen guys hit it in the water and make a mess out of it.”
It could be messy. It could be a thrill. It could be a big question mark, if the wind blows. But one thing the par-3 17th at TPC Sawgrass isn’t is boring.