May 9, 2014 6:00 am

Iconic Sawgrass is the star of the Players Championship

Justin Leonard of the United States hits his tee shot on the 17th hole during the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship on The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on May 8, 2014 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Augusta. The Old Course. Pebble Beach. Riviera.

There are rare occasions when a tournament is inextricably linked with the course on which it is held. The TPC at Sawgrass and The Players Championship are one such instance.

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But unlike other great course/tournament connections, like the British Open and St. Andrews, Sawgrass is best known for a single hole — yes that one. The 17th, a par three with its island green, is a hole that draws in viewers and polarizes and plagues professional golfers. It is the sort of hole, though only 137 yards long, that attracts the amateur golfer to sit in front of their living room television this weekend and pretend they are watching The Players Championship. They aren’t viewing a golf tournament. They are waiting for one hole.

It is a hole that shouldn’t be that difficult. Sure, it is surrounded entirely by water, but for the pros, it is rarely more than an 8-iron.

Occasionally it is only a wedge. And these guys go to town on short holes.

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But viewers aren’t tuning in for success. They are counting on failure. In truth, the public watches the Players Championship for the pain and hurt inflicted on professional golfers who find a watery grave when they miss the notorious island green. These Saturday morning golfers like it when the pros fail. These sadists found pleasure when Tiger Woods shot 81 in the driving rain and wind at Muirfield in 2002. They like meltdowns. For them, watching a PGA Tour pro fail miserably makes their shortcomings seem comparable, when the reality is their games are unimaginably removed from that of the world’s best.

That’s why the island green at Sawgrass is so fascinating. It is a pure all-or-nothing golf hole. You either hit the green or end up in a watery abyss. There’s no in between. Death or glory. And even the professional, with his laser like accuracy, can rattle one off the wood that surrounds the green, or spin a slightly mishit shot into the water. And don’t kid yourself — golf’s best think about the hole as they walk up the 16th, which gives them a clear view of the carnage one hole away.

“It is like having a 3 o’clock appointment for a root canal,” said former British Open champ Mark Calcavecchia. “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.”

A tee sign is seen on the 17th hole during the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship on The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on May 8, 2014 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Interestingly, the 17th was not a concept dreamed up by designer Pete Dye when he was constructing the course in the late 1970s. The hole was the creation, “of Alice,” Dye told me on a phone conversation a few years ago. Alice, of course, is Pete’s wife, a golfer of profound abilities. She told Dye to build an island green at the site of the 17th when the area had been stripped of soil that was moved elsewhere on the marshy property.

At the time it opened, Sawgrass was considered legendary for its toughness, with greens so fierce that Jack Nicklaus complained, he’d “never been able to stop a 5-iron on the hood of a car.”

Dye, now 88, has a hard time figuring out exactly how to stop the professional golfer. While Nicklaus and the like complained about the severity of Sawgrass when it opened, it has been tempered over the years. How to keep scores from going too low—that’s Dye’s current challenge.

Dye says the salvation of Sawgrass rests in its greens, surfaces that are still well beyond the average PGA Tour stop. The tricky greens at Sawgrass mean that even a short hitter can still contend and even win, as was the case with the likes of Fred Funk, KJ Choi or Tim Clark. But no one tunes into The Players Championship to watch people putt. Viewers want blood — or in this case water — and they find it over and over again on the 17th.

These days the brains behind the game are dreaming up ways to stop golf’s longest hitters from overwhelming many of the game’s best courses. They talk about new balls that don’t travel as far. They speak about adjusting drivers.

Pete Dye found a way to fix the problem 26 years ago. And it is only 137 yards long.

© Shaw Media, 2014

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