Millions of words, including these, have been written about the controversial 17th hole island green at the TPC Sawgrass course in Ponte Vedra, Florida. Few holes are more iconic. Few holes are so controversial. Golfers that have had the privilege to play the course will tell you there is no more intimidating shot in golf. (Myself included)
And there lies the problem.
Recent weeks have seen discussions of once again moving The Players back into March and moving the PGA Championship up into May. The reasoning for the potential move is to help space out the majors and create a more even pace to the season for both players and fans. Hidden in that move is the possibility of helping The Players to be recognized as a 5th major.
Can a tournament with such a controversial hole ever be accepted as a major? I’m not sure it can.
The 17th is a spectator favorite. The stadium seating and party atmosphere makes it a fun place for casual fans to watch some golf. The crowd reaction often seems as energetic for a ball in the water as a wedge to three feet. The TV folks love it too. The 17th has provided plenty of drama over the years but more often for the failures than the successes.
The 12th hole at Augusta is a similar test of nerve and skill. Come up just a bit short and you’re in Rae’s Creek. Long and you have a downhill shot onto a lightning fast green heading once again right at Rae’s Creek. History has proven that the 12th at Augusta can change the entire tournament in a hurry. Just ask Jordan Spieth and Danny Willett. In fact, scoring statistics show that the holes play about the same. In 2017 the 12th at Augusta played to an average score of 3.23 strokes. Through Friday the 17th at The Players has played to 3.27 strokes. With rain in the area today, and after the cut, that number may even come down over the weekend.
But the 12th at Augusta is no 17th at The Players simply because of the design. Golf’s majors are about tradition and history. Everything about Augusta National is traditional. There is nothing traditional about an island green. Is golf ready for a modern major?
Without the water, most players would hit a green from 137 yards the vast majority of the time. Just miss and up and down for par is still doable. As if on cue, while writing this post I just watched Ben Crane hit his first ball just a few inches short of the 17th green, hit the railroad ties, and go in the water. No water and he’s a chip and a putt away from par. It may have even hopped forward onto the green. Instead he re-teed. His second effort hit the flag and went in the water again. Effort three finally found the green, barely. Crane went from a statistically probable 3 to a 7 simply due to the green being an island. 2-strokes for being a foot short with his first ball and 2-strokes for hitting the pin.
Do we want a major championship to include a 71st hole that is more a test of nerve and luck than skill? Do we want a major that can come down to one swing making such a huge change in the result so late in the game?
If the answer is “yes” then The Players might just have a chance of becoming the 5th major this time around. If not, The Players will continue to be one of the most entertaining regular tour stops in the game. They sure aren’t about to fill in that lake any time soon.