Walking up the 18th fairway at TPC Sawgrass, I wondered if the first group who had started on the back nine will have reached 17 yet.
Then I got my answer.
A roar ripped through the trees that line every strip of fairway on Florida’s most famous golf estate.
The 2023 Players Championship was barely two hours old and, with just the sixth shot of the tournament into the island green, the small flurries who had set up camp on the banks had witnessed a hole-in-one.
Not that I’m bitter about missing it by merely moments.
Hayden Buckley’s shot pitched on the slope that separates the front and centre of the heart-shaped putting surface, rolled back towards him and fell in the side door. It was just the 11th ace at 17 in Players history.
The 27-year-old rookie, making his first appearance at The Players, celebrated how many of us would – by launching his cap in the air before looking at his playing partners in utter disbelief. (Me? I’m not sure I’d manage to resist throwing myself in the water.)
When you approach the 17th at Sawgrass from the 18th, as most would when they enter the property, you can’t see any of it until you make your way round the corner and suddenly it’s there.
It might just be the perfect viewing hole. It has something of the 16th at Scottsdale about it, with surrounding grandstands, minus the beer-bombing bros, giving it that amphitheatre feel. But they are set just far enough back to leave ample room on the grassy banks – and it’s here you’ll find plenty of people kicking back and enjoying the drama.
When I arrive, the shadows are long and the ropes are lined with empty fold-out chairs. Legend says that people arrive early to reserve their spots, before disappearing elsewhere to watch the action, but the unwritten rule is that if a chair is left unattended, you can sit in it until its owner returns.
As the sun hits its peak on this blisteringly hot March afternoon, the 17th is pushing capacity. But it never feels cramped. It’s almost a shame Buckley’s shot didn’t come a bit later in the day, I ponder, so more people could have seen it. He won’t care, I conclude.
There is plenty to entertain, though. There might not be any more aces, but any ball that comes to rest within 20 feet of the yellow flag is greeted by a huge roar.
But if you don’t catch your shot quite flush, a collective gasp rings around the grounds. Find the water and you’ll unleash a chorus of groans. In the case of JT Poston, who backed off his tee shot three times, there may have even been a wry smile or two.
Only this beautiful game of ours can combine pantomime with nail-biting tension and condense it into five seconds.
Between groups, the conversations of your neighbours provide the entertainment. “Which one is Min Woo Lee?” one friendly veteran asked me, keen to know more about the man who, at the time, was leading the tournament. “The one in the black. It’s his first Players. He’s Australian. A two-time European Tour winner. His sister Minjee is a two-time major champion on the LPGA. He looks like he’s limping but I’m not sure why.” I don’t know why I offered up all this information, but I enjoyed listening to him regale it to his friends just moments later.
A couple, clutching at their recent purchases from the Freshly Squeezed Lemonade stands dotted around the property, argue about whether they want to watch the action from by the green or behind the tee.
Later in the day, one man drunkenly questions what happens if the ball lands on that little island in the water that seemingly serves no purpose other than to house a camera. His friend is unsure, but he does know that the tree was recently replaced. “They had to fly it in,” he says. Whatever that means.
Then, at the other end of the scale, two women discussing the recent weekend antics of their rather – how shall I put this? – promiscuous friend. Dammit, people, this is GOLF!
But it’s all part of the fun. There are plenty of par-3 holes around the world at which you could comfortably kick back and enjoy the action for an entire day. The aforementioned at the Phoenix Open, the 11th at St Andrews, the 12th at Augusta.
The list goes on, but the 17th at Sawgy – as the locals call it – combines the best of all of them.
I could spend all week here. And, thanks to the free WiFi that’s allowing me to sit here and write this as I watch, I might just do that.
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