Island hole no paradise at Players

At TPC Sawgrass, site of this week's Players Championship and home of PGA Tour headquarters, the 17th hole is not just for golfers.

Anybody can indulge in the weirdness.

"When you say 'Sawgrass,' you think of the 17th hole," said veteran Kenny Perry, preparing for his 25th appearance in the tournament often called golf's fifth major. "It has wrecked a lot of good rounds and has let a few players who make birdie there pass a bunch of guys."

Anybody who knows that golf balls have dimples has heard about the little 137-yard hole that sits in the middle of a lake. From that short-iron distance, PGA Tour players typically leave flag sticks dented like an '89 Firebird. But nothing about the 17th hole at Sawgrass is standard procedure.

Detractors call the hole gimmicky, saying it needs only a windmill or a clown's mouth to be complete. But like it or hate it, you can't ignore it.

"It's like having a 3 o'clock appointment for a root canal," Mark Calcavecchia said.

As a result, the little hole has grown into the centerpiece of tournament week at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. NBC will use 11 cameras on the hole, including a microscopic lens embedded in the lip of the tiny front bunker. PGATour.com provides a daylong live feed from the 17th for all four rounds of play. The elevated grass bank to the left of the water hazard is considered the most-prized spectator viewing site on the entire property.

The reason is simple: Sooner or later, something weird, wacky or wonderful is going to happen on the island.

During the other 51 weeks of the year, when the course is open for public play, an estimated 150,000 golf balls are fished out of the surrounding pond -- an average of more than three ka-plunks per player based on the resort course's average of 45,000 rounds.

Then along come the world's best players for Players Championship week, and often they do only marginally better.

During third-round play in 2005, former PGA champion Bob Tway set a dubious tournament record by hitting four balls into the water and making a 12 on the par-3 hole.

Tway was at 7 under par, only four shots off the lead, when he came to the 17th hole with gusts up to 25 mph blowing from left to right. His first shot went long and into the water.

He went to the drop area, 77 yards from the hole, and again rifled a shot over the green. His next two efforts came up short, then he finally hit the back side of the green, 40 feet from the hole. He three-putted for a 12.

Tway was tied for 10th when he stepped up to the tee, and tied for 72nd at 2 over par when he left the green.

His misery has company.

Consider Len Mattiace. In 1998, Mattiace came to the 17th on Sunday only one stroke off the lead. He left the island green out of contention after hitting two balls into the water -- the second from a greenside bunker -- and ending up with a quintuple-bogey 8.

Sean O'Hair has a similar story from 2007. Playing with Phil Mickelson on Sunday in the final group, O'Hair arrived at the 17th trailing Mickelson by two strokes. After watching Mickelson play safely to the center of the green, O'Hair went for the flagstick, but overshot the green. He hit his third shot from the drop area, and it also ended up in the water. He finished the hole with a quadruple-bogey 7.

"It is stuck out there with all that water surrounding it," Perry said. "When it's all on the line, you get a little nervous and the next thing you know you tug it 3, 4 yards from a pin that's tucked and you are leaning and watching, just hoping to hit the green -- and hitting the green does not necessarily mean it's going to stay on."

The tournament, however, is not always lost at 17. On a few rare occasions, the hole has produced celebrations, none bigger than after Tiger Woods' 60-foot, triple-breaking birdie putt in 2001 that will forever be remembered as commentator Gary Koch's "better than most" call.

"Probably the most exciting moment I've ever had in the booth," Koch said.

It's also the hole where Fred Couples once hit his tee shot in the water, re-teed and holed out for an unlikely par.

And finally, it is the hole where Steve Lowery in 1998 had his tee shot stolen by a seagull. That's right. As Lowery walked from the tee box to the green, the bird, after bumping the shot around the putting surface, finally picked up the ball and flew away, only to drop it in the water hazard.

Under the Rules of Golf, since a bird is considered an "outside agency," Lowery was permitted to replace the ball at the spot where it initially had come to rest on the green.

The lucky one.