Mark Townsend tackles the 17th at TPC SawgrassMay, 2014
Mark Townsend tackles the infamous 17th at TPC Sawgrass after a chat with Karl Morris
Dr Karl Morris: “When you get on that tee is it definitely going to go in the water?”
Me: “The thing is I’m quite a nervous golfer, well a very nervous golfer actually. And quite pessimistic. You don’t want to pre-condition yourself but I am, always have been.”
KM: “Answer the question. Is it definitely going to go in the water?”
The reason for this slightly surreal conversation was that I had just received an invite to play at Sawgrass – home of The Players Championship. Home of the 17th.
The first few hours were spent smirking to myself at the prospect of such a trip. So far this year I had ‘enjoyed’ three rounds of golf, two spent with a portable mat to save digging up the fairways while the other finished in a blizzard.
With temperatures up in the 80s and renovations now concluded at the PGA Tour headquarters, at a cost of £6.5m, there would be no need for any mats.
When you begin to envisage 18 holes over the Stadium Course your thoughts begin and end with one shot. Your opening drive, chipping concerns and a tweaky putting stroke stay tucked away at the back of your mind. No, the one thing that dominates everything is ‘that shot’ at the world-famous 17th.
Nobody will be interested in anything else other than how many balls you put in the lake to join the 120,000 sunk on an annual basis? Thus the phone call to Dr Morris.
“The classic thing is that most people have seen it so many times on television, with balls going into the water, that they take it to an extreme. It’s a little bit like going on an aeroplane for the first time and all you’ve done for the past six months is watch movies like
“It is almost like your mind and everyone’s mind is conditioned before you even start for disaster.”
Correct. Having mulled it over for a couple of days I was now wondering whether dignity would bring me to my senses and stop me from teeing up a fifth ball. The thought of actually hitting a shot of 130 yards straight hadn’t even crossed my mind.
But 10 minutes with a leading sports psychologist can do wonders, even for someone as weak in the head as myself.
“The reality is you’re scared before you start. How do we deal with that? There’s no point visualising the ball going into middle of the green because you haven’t even played there.
Rather than think positive get your mind into neutral. Neutral is dealing with reality. The reality of it is that that hole is about 130 yards – the question is have you ever hit a nine iron straight?”
Even I couldn’t talk my way out of that one.
“So if we try and think positively that it’s definitely going to go on the green, that’s a lie, same with the water, that’s a lie. So what I want you to do is deal with the reality and put your mind in neutral.
“When you stand on that tee at Sawgrass it is possible that you could hit a nine-iron on to that green. That is fact. Possible deals with reality. That’s the key thing. If you focus your mind on that then your mind is now in neutral. It’s not negative, it’s not positive, it’s just
Buoyed by Morris’ words I went on to ask whether a new ball and new outfit would also help to bump up my confidence?
“Use the ball that you use on the 16th, don’t change anything and if you feel good dressing up, dress up.”
100 yards short of the 16th green, a huge expanse of water came fully into view Quite what I had in mind by the clothing question is anyone’s guess but I bit the bullet and splashed out £8 on a new polo shirt nevertheless.
The days leading up to the flight to Jacksonville passed without incident. My passport was returned from an African embassy the day before departure, a wisdom tooth finally appeared after 36 years of trying on the morning of the flight and I was then treated to a cosy
20-minute chat by the US customs.
All in all ideal preparation to go with one round of (crazy) golf previously played in the States – 18 holes in a Las Vegas hotel which was punctuated every 50 seconds by a rollercoaster passing by overhead.
The morning finally arrived and it proved to be a beauty. Bright skies and the friendliest of welcomes awaited six very twitchy journalists and each three-ball was soon assigned their own ‘forecaddie’, there to help with the pace of play, as well as a bucket of balls and a beautifully presented lunch box.
If we were going to play badly it wouldn’t be for the hosts’ lack of trying.
We all knew about the water surrounding the penultimate hole, what most of us hadn’t realised was that it played a part on all 18. The one hole at a time strategy went out of the window as six course planners were hurriedly thumbed through and any colour in our faces soon drained away.
With water down the right I went left off the first, a trend which would continue for three days, but we were all away (and dry) and into the Sawgrass experience. We played in what would is traditionally the week of The Players – as our preview notes frequently it will now be played in May, so the greens were firm and fast and the course nothing short of immaculate.
Despite our caddie’s encouragement pars were few and far between due to the trickiness of the putting surfaces but every hole presented a fresh challenge and slowly the better shots crept into our games.
Played from a blend of the blues and white tees, at 6403 yards, length is not at a premium, rather an emphasis on shotmaking. The starter announced that the Stadium is ‘a very good course for a very good player’. Any distant illusions of the latter had been shattered by a front nine which produced three pars but still no lost balls.
Our caddie Jason was relentless in his efforts, pointing out every yardage and break as well as regaling us of stories and statistics from past championships and it was comforting to hear that the stars of the game also made a mess of the approach to the ninth.
The 11th is as spectacular a par-five as any you would wish to see, so dazzling all three of us blobbed it, but from the 13th it all began to come right as three pars and a bogey brought me to the 17th in worryingly high spirits.
So here we were at last. I can honestly say, thanks to the amazing nature of the course and excellent company of my playing partners and caddie, that the 17th had not been preying on my mind at all that morning.
That is, until 100 yards short of the 16th green when the huge expanse of water came fully into view. A pin sat on the back left of the green but everywhere else was water. As the nerves began to grow I took the grown-up option, and started giggling.
But to business. Another of Morris’ techniques is to use something called framing.
“A lot of the nonsensical books would say don’t look at the water and hit it in the middle of the green. Unfortunately you have got eyes. If you think of a picture on a wall, what draws attention to it isn’t the picture itself it’s the frame. When you stand on that tee and you see
water left and right then that can actually frame your target. Rather than ignoring that then use it.”
With this in mind I stood behind the ball and took it all in. Wind helping and off the right, 128 yards, pin at the back. It would be a wedge, I had just hit a similar yardage at the last and finished 15 feet away and the thought of trying to play anything other than a full shot
First up I fiddled first in my pocket for a short tee, then wasted a bit more time clearing the teeing area of anything and everything before finally pegging her up. The same ball that had stayed loyal to me for the first 16 holes and, all being well, just two more.
One last look and then back and through. My first thought was one of huge relief as the ball climbed straight and true, the second was one of confusion to see my left thumb hanging off the club and then, I think, I started shouting at the ball. I’m not sure what but something, along the lines of a desperate shriek, came out.
All looked fine for a few seconds until, maybe a gust of wind or more likely the wrong club, saw the ball tumble out of the sky and drop short. Despite four people’s best efforts she came down a foot shy of the sleepers and wet!
My time had passed so I stepped aside to watch my playing partners both find the short stuff in some style.
After fumbling for an old ball, I went down to a nine. If this misses do I try again? And again after that? Is crying allowed on the Stadium Course?
A big high push but, thanks to the wind this time, it came down on terra firma. Fifty feet away but dry, satisfying enough but not really. On the plus side I hadn’t shanked it, let go of the club, disgraced myself, gone into double figures and had enjoyed a quite sensational course.
My 50ft putt for a four comes up eight feet short. I dribble the fifth to within four inches and tap-in for a six.
On the down side I had hit one ball into the water. Even I could see the benefit of looking on the bright side.