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17th at Sawgrass

How do you come to take an unplayable at the 17th?

Mark Townsend remembers the time he sought mental help, over practised, and then drank too much ahead of tackling the 17th at Sawgrass. It was never going to end well
 

“The classic thing is that most people have seen 17 so many times on TV, 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 Airplane. It is almost like your mind and everyone else’s mind is conditioned before you even start for disaster.”

In this pre-shot chat Karl Morris told me a lot of very useful things ahead of playing the 17th at Sawgrass but, given my innate ability to accentuate the negative, these are the words that settled easiest in my mind. Angelo Spagnolo took 66 shots to complete the same hole in becoming the World’s Worst Avid Golfer in 1986 and he was the player who fascinated me more than Tiger et al.

The year was 2007 and I had bought a new polo shirt for the occasion. My pre-travel preparations consisted of my passport being returned from an African embassy the day before departure (a long and uninteresting story), a wisdom tooth finally appearing 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 at Shannon Airport when it quickly dawned on me that I didn’t have the right visa.

On the day itself I enjoyed a sensational hangover thanks to a five-hour wait for a connection in Newark, which consisted of drinking at a pace that I wasn’t capable of with some Irish journalists, and eating an inordinate amount of chicken wings, as well as an equally sensational and unexpected phone chat with Kenny Ferrie about his exploits at Winged Foot the previous year.

None of which is of any interest but are the constants that I will always cling to when describing what later went on at the iconic par 3.

Given nobody wants a shot-by-shot, or even shot singular, of the first 16 holes I’ll just say that I had the honour which only added to my anxiety.

Karl had suggested using the water to frame the hole rather than simply panicking about the size of it and to get my mind into neutral rather its usual state of distrust.

What we hadn’t talked about is why my left thumb was now hanging off the grip of my wedge a millisecond after making contact with the ball. Never before or since has this happened and was part of the reason that my voice then changed to a high-pitched shriek as my ball hit the bleachers.

And then continued to munch with my head as I took an extra club and sailed a screaming hook on the right-to-left gusts onto the bank left of the water, maybe the only outcome that I hadn’t considered in my mental build-up.

Sadly this was deep in the midriff of some chronic short-game concerns, the absolute peak of the tremors, and the realisation that I might have to flop one off the bank to the back-left pin was horrendous. Which is why I called an unplayable – a term that couldn’t have been more appropriate – and played a third tee shot.

I was now well aware that I was stinking out the tee box but needs must and I hadn’t come all this way to putt my ball up the path.

My fifth shot was similarly hopeless but found the green to 50 feet, from where three putts provided the perfect conclusion to a very odd and mentally damaging 15 minutes of nothing close to fame.

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