Why the 17th at Sawgrass is one of golf's most intimidating holes
“Use the ball that you use on the 16th, don’t change anything and if you feel good dressing up, dress up.”
The previous week I was asked if I would like to go to Sawgrass, home of The Players, on a press trip? My initial reaction was one of elation and over-excitement which then soon turned, as it always tends to do, into some sort of panic.
Which explains why I was, a few days later, sat in an office and on the phone to Karl Morris to seek some reassuring words.
Unsurprisingly our conversation was dominated by how someone of a nervous nature and with an ability to produce their very worst when it was least required would deal with tackling a hole that is surrounded by water, the infamous 17th on the Stadium Course.
“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 Airplane. It is almost like your mind and everyone’s mind is conditioned before you even start for disaster.”
My golfing mind is pretty much conditioned for disaster whatever golf club is in my hands so I didn’t really trust myself as to how I would handle things.
But the voice on the other end of the line is trained to help people not think like this, quite what I asked him about what clothes to wear I’ve no idea.
“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 9-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 9-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 neutral.”
Eleven years on I think I have now grasped what Karl was talking about that day. For whatever reason my mind does work differently these days on the course, back then I was a mental shambles.
In truth my preparations were poor. This was to be just my fourth round of the year, the first two played with a mat in hand and the third in a blizzard at Pontefract.
My passport was with an African embassy until the day before departure, I then got hammered that night and I very nearly wasn’t allowed on the flight after fluffing my lines with the US customs at Shannon as to the reason for my visit.
On the course mistake number one was not taking his advice and hitting that 9-iron. Instead the wedge came out of the bag.
This is what then happened on Monday March 26, 2007…
The round had pretty much panned out as I had expected. Mild terror had subsided after six holes and I managed to make a few pars to give a half decent account of myself.
From 13 thru (I love writing thru) 16 I had made three pars and a bogey so things were ticking along nicely but the bad news was that I had the honour on 17.
My memory of that day was that there was some sort of water on every hole, but that I still had the same ball that I had started with.
“Use the same ball that you use on the 16th…”
It was 127 yards that day which for this finely-tuned 36-year-old was a solid wedge to a pin cut on the back part of the green.
Except my wedge wasn’t very solid. It would have looked good in the air but I knew that I had thinned it which is why I then began to shriek at the ball.
Another strange thing that happened in those couple of seconds was that my left thumb was no longer on the grip which had never happened before or has since.
It hit the bleachers. The wannabe tour pro in me will blame a late gust of wind, the realist would just admit that it wasn’t the best of strikes and the wrong club which isn’t a great combination.
My playing partners then both hit the green which meant it was back on me – but I had had now some time to consider what had just happened and my mind had now gone into meltdown.
I did then hit the 9 but hit a shot that was so horrific that it missed the green left but stayed dry. Over the course of a year around 120,000 balls end up wet, this might have been worse than all of them.
I’m not sure if any words were then exchanged but, with the prospect of putting down the path to simply experience something on the 17th green, I played a third shot from the tee that was unsurprisingly fanned out right but saved by the wind and landed 50 feet from the pin.
With the other ball in play I took the option to have a putt, and then another two putts to put the seal on the most disappointing hole of my life.