PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Every year when the Players Championship arrives, the signature hole, the par-3 17th known as the island green, gets star treatment heading into the PGA Tour’s flagship event that lures nearly all of the game’s headliners.
In promos over the years, the hole’s chilling history of calamity is highlighted with one replay after another of players dunking their fortunes in the water. Yes, classic triumphs including Tiger Woods’ better-than-most putt have been in the spots, but mostly, the misery of the balls that didn’t find land and the terrifying nature of the short hole are featured.
“You see more water than grass,” Tony Finau says in the latest ad promoting the 2022 Players. “It messes with your head.”
That’s Pete Dye’s MO. With his collection of razor-sharp edges, severe angles, troublesome undulations on the greens and an assortment of bunkers and hazards, the respected architect demanded the players’ attention on every shot.
And so it is on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, most notably on the 17th. But the 137-yard hole isn’t the only hole that offers up a tee shot that gets the heart racing, the hands tingling and the head racing. In fact, despite the perpetual klieg-light spotlight shone on the terror of the 17th, another tee shot is just as, if not more, horrifying.
“I would argue 18 is scarier than 17,” said 2019 Players champion Rory McIlroy.
The 18th hole of the TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium Course.
He can make a good argument about the 462-yard, par-4 finisher that is framed by a lake on the entire left side of the hole and a cluster of menacing rough, trees, bunkers, and moguls and bumps and humps down the right side. And the farther you go with your tee shot, the more narrow the fairway gets.
Since 2003, when ShotLink started documenting every shot on the PGA Tour, 815 balls have met an H2O grave on the 18th, the majority from off the tee. The 17th is the only hole that has seen more balls (868) disappear into the aqua.
But the hardest hole on the course is the 18th, which ranks No. 1 in difficulty at a field average of 4.336 strokes per since 2003 while the 17th ranks No. 9 at 3.113.
“You have got to commit,” McIlroy said. “It’s not a bail-out to the right. But I think, if you do hit it down that right side and avoid the water, you can still get it up around the green and try to make a 4, but it’s an intimidating tee shot.
“It’s what Pete Dye does with his golf courses. He makes it very visually intimidating. I’ve always played that hole aggressively because I’d rather have to hit one very difficult shot to make the hole play easier than have to hit two difficult shots. Like guys hit a 2-iron off that tee and they’re still left with a 5-iron into that green. I’d rather hit driver and a wedge, but it just means you have to hit a really good drive.”
And do so right after dealing with the 17th.
“You feel like once you get done with 17 there’s a little bit of relief, and then you get to 18 and it’s just as hard of a tee shot,” Daniel Berger said. “I cut the ball and it’s a dogleg left. You’re re-teeing if you don’t hit the cut that you want to hit.
“I start it over the water. I’ve played it differently in year’s past. I used to hit 3-wood off the tee, then I went to hitting driver, then I hit 3-iron. It really depends on the wind. I remember one year it was so firm and fast, I hit 3-iron, 9-iron into the green. If you hit it into the water, that’s at least a bogey. But if you miss it to the right it’s almost an automatic bogey, as well. You really have to step up there and hit a good tee shot if you’re looking to win the golf tournament coming down the 18th hole. It’s an amazing finishing hole, it really is.”
Rickie Fowler birdied the 17th three times in the final round – twice in a playoff – to win the 2015 Players Championship. When asked what the second scariest tee shot on the course was, he said the 17th because 18 is the most frightening.
“Well, OK, it’s a toss-up,” Fowler said. “The 18th is a harder tee shot. The 17th may be more scary because it’s fairly easy. I mean, as far as when you look at it, the hole is not very far, and you start trying to get a little cute towards the pin and there’s water very close. If you sat there with no pin on the green and your only job was to hit a ball on the green, Tour players are going to do that pretty much every time unless there’s serious conditions.
“If you were to stand on the 18th tee and your only job was to hit it in the fairway, that’s still not an easy thing to do. It’s obviously a great design around this golf course, and to have kind of the two shots that can make or break your round be right there at the end, it’s just a great place.”
Stewart Cink said any hole on the Stadium Course can be scary. But 18 gets the hair on your arms and the back of your neck to stand up a bit more often.
“The length of the hole makes it where you really can’t drop back to a short club just to make sure you get the ball in play unless you’re straight downwind,” Cink said. “So if there’s anything other than straight downwind you pretty much gonna have to suck it up and hit a nice shot there or you’re gonna pay a pretty severe price because right is really no good and left obviously is no good. It’s not the narrowest fairway but if you miss a fairway there, you pay a heavy price.”
Viktor Hovland said the tee shot on 18 is “way harder.”
“It’s just so narrow, and obviously you know how penal the left side is,” said Hovland, adding that you only need a 9-iron at most for the tee shot on 17. “If you pull it, one thing is kind of hitting a decent shot and it rolls in the water, at least you kind of get to drop up there. If you pull it straight off the tee, it’s a re-hit. And obviously the right side is no good either.
“You just kind of have to step up and hit a good shot. The 17th, you have a wedge in, and you can always just aim at the middle of the green. So I’ll take a ball on the fairway on 18 every day.”
Justin Thomas walks on the 18th hole the final round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass – Stadium Course. (Photo: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)
Justin Thomas found the fairway on the 72nd hole to cement his victory in last year’s Players, but it didn’t come without a few anxious moments.
After making a clutch 8-footer for par on the 17th, Thomas took a 1-shot lead to the 18th tee. He selected a 5-wood and unleashed a high-octane swing. And then his heart nearly stopped as his right-to-left shot headed for water.
“I can’t lie. I thought it was 50/50 if it was going to be dry or in the water. The only thing I knew is that I just absolutely smoked it,” Thomas said. “Obviously the farther up you get the better chance you have, and I knew that if you’re able to kind of get that little like downslope that I did or that I kind of hit on, it can kind of get rolling.”
Instead of screaming into the lake, the ball took a favorable bounce straight off the crown of the first cut and bounded down the fairway.
“That’s the kind of stuff that happens when you win tournaments. You get lucky breaks like that,” he said. “But yeah, it was too close for comfort, to say the least.”
Thomas provided proof a few weeks later when he revealed the findings of Whoop, the fitness strap he was wearing that monitors, among other things, heart rate and stress. As Thomas said, his heart rate alarmingly surged immediately after the tee shot. Thomas exhaled when the ball stayed dry and dropped his head onto the shoulder of his caddie in a display of relief.
He gathered himself and went on to make a par, signed for a 68 a day after shooting 64, and won by one.
Since then, Woods, a two-time Players champion and good friend, has given Thomas some grief about the tee shot.
“He told me that I toed my tee shot on 18, which I didn’t,” Thomas said. “I hit it right in the middle (of the face). I just overturned it a little bit, but he’s adamant that I toed it. I made sure to remind him that I didn’t.
“It was right where I needed to be.”