COMMENTARY | The penultimate hole at TPC Sawgrass' Stadium Course is the ultimate hole in golf.
The island-green par-3 17th hole is the topic of a lot of discussion every year. Is it fair? Would it be better if it came earlier in the round? Could it be lengthened or shortened? The conversation has gone on for 32 years, dating back to the first Players Championship contested at the Pete Dye gem in 1982.
As the tournament has aged and the course matured, however, the collective view of the 137-yard demon seems to have softened, even among its biggest detractors. Perhaps that's the truest sign that the architect had it right by inserting such a quirky hole at such a pivotal point on the golf course.
Even with the heart-wrenching double-digit scores it has produced over the years, the 17th has played to a scoring average of 3.14 since 2003. It's only the eighth-toughest hole at the Stadium Course in the last decade.
By comparison, the more-celebrated par-3 12th at Augusta National plays to a historical stroke average of 3.22. For all intents and purposes, the holes score about the same. The 17th at Sawgrass is tougher than it looks, which is precisely what Dye aimed to do with this design: visually intimidate players to distract them from the task at hand.
While Sawgrass' most iconic hole has played some 1,400-over par in three-plus decades of hosting The Players, it also means that a par can be fairly routine.
In the last decade, the field has hit the green at the 17th just about 78 percent of the time. Of course, that other 22 percent mostly finds the water at least once. Rarely, their ball lands in the pot bunker that can occasionally swallow up a pushed tee shot.
Though the tee shot seems the most vexing part of the hole, it really is the putting surface that makes par tricky. It has three very distinct sections.
There's the lower tier which invites players to spin the ball back to the pin, but also into the water if they're not careful. Fred Couples jarred perhaps the most iconic reloaded tee shot in Players history in 1999, when he earned par the hard way with a hole out to a front pin.
The right side of the top tier allows for the same kind of risk-reward if a player can successfully navigate his ball to the dividing ridge, but a poorly struck shot will land in the bunker or float into the water. Remember when Sergio Garcia found that ridge in the sudden-death playoff against Paul Goydos in 2008? Though the California native had found the drink with his tee shot, Sergio was not in the clear until his ball found dry land and trickled toward the cup.
Then there's the back-left portion of that upper tier that can prove to pose a near-impossible two-putt par for a player that goes long or left of their intended target. It's from that position, often considered dead, that Tiger Woods made the "better than most" putt in 2001, leading to his only Players win, by a shot over Vijay Singh.
NBC Sports' Gary Koch found those few-but-potent words for that Sunday birdie because it was nearly inconceivable to him that it would even stop close to the hole, much less go in it.
The beauty of the 17th, then, is that it's more than an intimidating tee shot. Finding the putting surface is good enough to avoid penalty strokes, but in no way does it mean par is a sure bet from there. Dye doesn't allow a player to ever relax at the Stadium Course, forcing them to execute the shots he demands if they want to score well. Some have said that prescription through intimidation is a flaw of the home of The Players. No, it's the genius of it.
For all its splendor, however, the 17th could still be improved -- and, no, it's not by filling in the pond surrounding the putting surface. Rather, it could be by lengthening it.
PGA Tour pro Matt Every grew up in Jacksonville, playing the Stadium Course more than his fair share of times over the years with friends. He told me that his buddies used to play the hole from even further back, walking to the hillside behind the tee to play the hole from nearly 180 yards.
If a 137-yard shot with a wedge or a 9-iron can make the best in the world sweat bullets, imagine taking on the challenge having to club up a few sticks?
Maybe if the wind kicks up this week in Ponte Vedra Beach, the field will get a taste of that very shot. In that case, The Players may come down to a crapshoot.
Ryan Ballengee is a Washington, D.C.-based golf writer. His work has appeared on multiple digital outlets, including NBC Sports and Golf Channel. Follow him on Twitter @RyanBallengee.
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