The Players is one of the most entertaining tournaments of the golf season—not only because it brings together most of the best players in golf, but because of the stunningly beautiful and difficult Stadium Course.
The Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., is covered in trees, full of regular bunkers and pot bunkers that are as deep as black holes, and every hole on the course has water.
Golf Course architect Pete Dye wanted to design a course that didn’t favor one type of player over another and with all the difficult distractions, he certainly reached that goal.
The Stadium Course is special for a few more reasons as well, including the fact that it was given the moniker after Dye planned out the course to enhance the overall fan experience nearly 30 years before courses started putting in massive bleachers for spectators.
But what really makes the TPC uber interesting and arduous is the three extremely difficult finishing holes, Nos. 16, 17, and 18.
What exactly makes them all so demanding though?
Nos. 16, 17, and 18 are all placed along a razor thin line that defines the border between liquid and solid, grass and water, playable and penalty-ridden.
If the nerves of winning the “fifth major” (as many affectionately call the TPC) get to a player, monumental swings in score are inevitable.
On 16, tighten up and you’ll lose the ball to the right and into the drink.
On 18, anything left is sunk, as are likely your chances at winning the prestigious tournament.
But hit it short, or long, or left, or right on 17 and your ball will be swimming faster than Michael Phelps. That’s not all though, the second shot isn’t much easier and high scores are nearly inevitable.
As pro Jim Furyk put it, “It’s a volatile three holes.”
But a surprising swing in events has taken place in the last two years, namely, at the “Island Green”, No. 17. (It’s technically a peninsula but could you imagine Tiger and Phil out on a paddle boat heading to an actual island green? Actually, we may be on to something there.)
“The most intimidating hole in golf” has lost some of its aura, its magic, its air of mystery.
No. 17 has seen a dramatic drop off in the amount of balls in the water over the last four seasons, from 93 in 2007 to a mere 20 through three rounds of play this year.
So why the drop in dropped balls?
Could it be that players have improved greatly recently?
Or is it due to the fact that the technology is too great for the once intimidating hole to bother the best players in the world?
Kenny Perry thinks he has the answer as he told Brian Wacker of pgatour.com, "When we played in March, the winds were swirling," Perry said. "We haven't had those kinds of winds all week. For the last couple of days, it's been downwind left to right, no swirling winds. That's a shot that's easy for most of these guys."
The PGA restructured their season in 2007, moving the TPC from March and just before the Masters to May so each month would have a marquee event. Well, it seems that move may have had some unintended consequences.
John Rollins agrees, "The winds haven't really blown hard as in years past," said Rollins, "but on Sunday it's still not an easy shot to stand up and hit."
2004 Players Champion Adam Scott has a thought about the increased easiness and increased softness of the green on 17 as well. "Most balls struck well have held on the grass," he said.
Since 2003, when ShotLink started recording H2O balls, the numbers tell a little more about the story.
Year | Balls Sunk
2003 | 29
2004 | 30
2005 | 68
2006 | 57
2007 | 93
2008 | 64
2009 | 32
2010 | 20*
*Through three rounds
Yes, the numbers are drastically down for last year and in this current tournament but they are quite similar to 2003-04.
From 2005-08 the numbers of wet balls ballooned, to an average of 70.5 balls in the water on No. 17, so what happened?
The players know The Players.
Swirling winds have always made the course more difficult, and apparently the Atlantic winds are calmed a great deal in May compared to March.
This is potentially as much a blow to the PGA Tour as Tiger missing tournaments and cuts.
No. 17 is the biggest spectacle in golf because any golfer Joe Schmo, like you, or me or that guy that played Joe Schmo on FOX, knows how humiliating it is to knock that little white ball into the water.
We can relate—and we love seeing the pros, check that, the best of the pros knock it in the drink.
It is rare in the world of professional sports for fans and players to be connected in such a way, which brings ratings and of course, the money.
So, if the PGA wants to make sure they hold onto one of their most vital assets in No. 17, one they may have already lost due to the move and greediness, they must reduce the size of the peninsula, or make it an actual island.
Choice A: Reduce the Size
Ok, the green is already tiny (78 feet long), but it’s extremely short from tee to green too (132 yards).
Still, cutting the green down say, 28 feet, to 50 feet long would increase the difficulty in hitting it to be sure.
The result, more balls in the pond.
Choice B: A Real Island
Cut this walkway off and make the green a true island.
That way, even if players aren’t hitting the water as much, there’s still the entertainment factor of two competing pros having to paddle in unison to the green on those adorable paddle boats that can be found at any local fairground.
Plus, imagine if someone fell in the pond!
Talk about a ratings booster.
Seriously though, while the PGA has a legitimate problem if pros stop dropping into the drink on 17, holes 16 and 18 swallow up many a golf ball as well.
In fact, since 2003 the best finish in golf, 16 (222) 17 (393) and 18 have seen a total of nearly 1,000 balls in the water, keeping fans entertained by the intensely close competition and lead swings.
"It's a volatile three holes," Furyk warned.
It seems others have listened, at least on 17.
Rich Kurtzman is a Colorado State University alumnus and freelance sports journalist. He’s the acting Denver Nuggets Featured Columnist here on B/R, the Denver Broncos FC on NFLTouchdown.com , the CSU Rams Examiner for examiner.com and a contributor to coloradosportsdesk.com .