If you could play one hole over and over for the rest of your life
It’s a sound that at any other time is accompanied by an agonising wail – the resonating thump as a ball finds liquid. When gravity takes over, it breaks the hearts of golfers holding a good card. And drives some of them to break their clubs too. But not here. Not on the 17th at TPC Sawgrass.
The golf carts are parked up in neat rows on the side of the tee. There are balls spread out over the turf.
Each time a swing sends one spiralling away from the unmistakable green, the resulting splash is treated with a hearty cheer from everyone in the party.
Then they all take it in turns to try again.
This has got to be only hole in the world where this happens. Where else are players delving deep into the recesses of their bag praying they’ll find one more ball to fire again?
Don’t worry about the group behind. They’re happy to watch – because they know they’re going to do exactly the same thing in a few minutes’ time.
If it feels like Groundhog Day then it’s only for a few glorious minutes.
Players wake up the next day wishing they were getting the chance to do it all over again.
I’d seen Pete and Alice Dye’s famous creation on television, of course. We all have. We’ve all watched the best field in golf embrace triumph and tragedy there every year at The Players Championship.
TV doesn’t do it justice. Nothing really does.
It’s a shot that makes the legs quake, but in anticipation as much as fear.
The whole thing is a paradox.
You want to hit the green first shot – telling yourself you’ll have achieved something that infinitely better players than you fail to do. The opportunity to pencil in a two is tantalising.
But you don’t feel destroyed if you miss, because failing to find that strip of green on the first shot means you get to have another go.
The caddies tell players not to sweat it, and others hang back on the long walk from the 16th green. Pace of play does not apply here, and nor should it. Taking on this hole is an experience that requires savouring.
It was early evening when I got my first chance. We’ve been in Ponte Vedra Beach to find out more about The Players, as guests of the PGA Tour, and there was little chance that kind of journey wasn’t going to coincide with a trip round the famous Stadium course.
It was 137 yards on the card, 142 our caddie Bill instinctively opined when he’d given all but a brief scan at the position of the flag.
That’s usually an 8 for me but the temperature had dropped so I came armed with a seven. I hit as pure an iron shot as I had all day and it soared into the sky straight at the back pin position.
It was on, it was on, and then it was in – a yard short and making that fateful splash. I gasped. So close.
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17th tee @tpcsawgrass. *splash* ? ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Thanks to the @pgatour for letting us play the HOME of golf’s ‘5th major’. A real test, but so much fun. ? ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #golf #golfer #golfstagram #instagolf #golfing #golfcourse #golfswing #golflife #golfball #pga #pgatour #tpc #tpcsawgrass #theplayersFeb 11, 2019 at 1:49am PST
And then I grabbed another ball. This one was even cleaner struck and it did go further. Straight into the railroad ties that keep this spectacular putting surface intact.
This would have been enough to sink my spirits in any other round – enough to write two big letters on the card and head off in a huff to the clubhouse.
But, of course, this wasn’t just another round.
So I pulled out another gleaming Titleist, and another club. The 6-iron seemed to hang into the air for ages before it dropped and stopped 18 feet left of the flag.
When the putt dropped right in the centre, I almost fist bumped everyone around me Tiger-style. For a six.
That is the pulling power of this amazing hole – the challenge of beating the water offset by the sheer joy of just playing it.
I managed a par there less than 18 hours later, an act that I’ll now always cite as one of my fondest golfing memories.
And yet as I walked to the final tee, I felt a strange sensation. It was the desire to run back and hit another shot. I’d always be happy to keep on hitting the 17th at TPC Sawgrass.