The 17th at Sawgrass: Golf's ultimate greenkeeping challenge
“Sometimes we think we have to put a life-vest on guys that get up there to mow that.”
Jeff Plotts is only half-joking.
The 17th at Sawgrass is one of golf’s must-play holes and it claims as many as 120,000 balls every year as players reload in unison until they can say they’ve hit the ‘island green’.
But that 137-yards of mostly water, surrounding a 78-foot long putt surface, gives the greenkeeping team tending to the Stadium Course at Ponte Vedra Beach a headache.
How can you keep the tee and green in championship condition all-year-round if every golfer is hitting half a dozen shots in their once-in-a-lifetime trip?
“When you get a hole that receives a lot of extra traffic, it becomes a difficult managing hole,” explained Plotts, the director of golf course operations at TPC Sawgrass and the man in charge of more than 100 greenkeepers at the 36-hole complex.
“That green is very small. So it takes a lot of shots. Most golfers that come here are going to keep hitting until they hit the green – or maybe even hit it twice.
“So it has a lot of ball marks. It’s a challenging green to manage but our team does a really good job.
“It’s very difficult to aerify. You have to be really careful and aerify in a certain way. It takes a little extra nutrients too, just to go through some of the wear problems that we have.”
It’s called the ‘island green’ but it’s technically a peninsula – with a single entrance and exit.
For several months before the month-long build up to The Players in March, Plotts and his team employed a small wooden walkway around the back of the green to balance the constant footfall.
Plotts explained: “That kind of stumps people when they see that for the first time. But it’s just for us to be able to manage the entry and exit points on that green throughout the winter months, when we’re not growing as aggressively as we are during the season.
“We do a lot of roping and staking to try to help to keep people from having a tendency to walk in one direction every time. We have to manage the hole. You just can’t let it be.”
Then there’s the tee. With most golfers hitting a multitude of shots, and many of them hardly described as the perfect strike, the turf can get hugely hammered with divots.
“It gets a lot of activity,” Plotts admitted. “There are a lot of wedding photos that get taken out there. There are a lot of extra photos that just happen on the golf course. So the tee gets a lot of wear.”
What will help from now on is the recent winter programme to reseed the greens, tees, and indeed the entire golf course, so it is more playable, and manageable, leading up to The Players, which has returned to a March date following 12 years in May.
The new rye grasses allow the course to recover much more quickly from periods of bad weather and also speeds up the healing cycle for those divots and ball marks.
Plotts will have to repeat that reseeding process every year, but one of the other major benefits is that ryegrass handles the numbers of people walking across the turf far better than the previous Bermuda grass did on its own.
That puts him in a much better position to handle the constant flood of feet, iron shots, and pitch marks that are a constant when you’re working with one of golf’s most recognisable holes.
“It’s a beautiful golf hole but it holds up to it,” he said. “Our team does a phenomenal job of understanding what that hole means, and what it means to this facility, and trying to manage it accordingly.
“It’s a tough process. That hole is a just a really tough hole to manage, even though it doesn’t have a lot of turf.”
The 17th at Sawgrass in numbers
- It’s been estimated that as many as 120,000 balls every year find the water at the 17th at Sawgrass
- The green is actually the largest on the Stadium Course – measuring 78-feet long (or 24 metres). The water is four feet deep
- The hole plays at 137 yards from The Players tees
- At The Players in 2018, the 17th yielded the most birdies of the par 3s (69) but also the most double bogeys and worse (42). 82% of players found the green off the tee
- There have been eight hole in ones at The Players, the last of which was Sergio Garcia in 2017
- The hole ranked fourth in difficulty during last year’s tournament