An island that only punishes the pursuers

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - It is the most famous hole at The Players Championship. It can be argued that of all the par 3s in golf, none is more recognizable than the island-green 17th at the TPC Sawgrass.

The theater is endless.

The punishment is severe.

For all the hype and occasional terror, however, the par 3 has rarely kept a player atop the leaderboard in the final round Sunday from winning the richest prize on the PGA Tour. Since moving to the TPC Sawgrass in 1982, only one player came to the 17th hole in the final round at least tied for the lead and found the water. That was Phil Blackmar in 1991, who made double bogey and paved the way for Steve Elkington to win.

Len Mattiace was chasing in 1998 when he went water, bunker, water again and made 8. Sean O’Hair had to gamble in 2007, went into the water twice and made a 7.

But there have been more good things happen to a leader over the years. Fred Couples (1996) and Craig Perks (2002) were among those to make pivotal birdies on their way to winning. Lee Janzen scrambled for par from the bunker when he won in 1995.

The only time the 17th consistently became decisive was when the PGA Tour forced the situation by having the sudden-death playoff start on the most theatrical hole on the course. Paul Goydos was in a playoff with Sergio Garcia in 2008 when he hit first and went into the water. The tournament effectively ended when Garcia found dry land. A year ago, it wasn’t the water but the strong grain in the grass. David Toms three-putted, missing a 3 1/2-foot par putt.

According to Golf World magazine, the 17th at Sawgrass on paper might look like a pushover. For the last three years, it has ranked Nos. 137, 140 and 114 in difficulty of all par 3s on the PGA Tour. The 17th produced more birdies and eagles (238) than bogeys or worse (181). And among the four par 3s at Sawgrass, it played as the easiest.

Even so, it will not lack for action when The Players Championship gets under way Thursday.

The memories are endless _ aces and 8s, short misses and the long, winding putts for birdie. Tiger Woods hit perhaps the most famous putt on the island green when he holed a 60-footer for birdie that broke three directions and dove into the cup in the third round of 2001. Not so memorable is that Robert Allenby made the same putt _ only a little bit longer _ earlier that day. The difference is it was early in the third round, and the few who even saw it included none other than PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem.

Couples made one of the most bizarre pars on the hole _ a tee shot in the water, a penalty drop, and a third shot that plopped into the cup on the fly.

The biggest debate is whether an island should be a green so late in the round.

Woods has long believed it would be better on the front nine. If someone has a train wreck, he would have the back nine to atone for the mistake.

“I have always said this _ I think 17 is a great hole, but not the 17th,” he said. “I think it’s a perfect eighth hole or something like that.”

Along with his long birdie putt in 2001, Woods holed perhaps a more important putt on the 17th. It was the 1994 U.S. Amateur, and his tee shot narrowly stayed on the back of the green. He holed the birdie putt from about 18 feet to go 1 up and closed out Trip Kuehne on the 18th.

That might not even have been his most nervous moment.

“We played one year when it was just absolutely freezing here, and standing on that tee to a back left pin, you think it’s no big deal, it’s a back left pin,” he said. “But the wind is coming in off the left, and if it comes through that chute _ you have the grandstand, you have the trees _ and it comes through that little chute and you can see the flag just bending. I don’t feel comfortable from 155, 160 yards hitting a little chip 5-iron, so that’s a hard shot, especially when there’s no bailout.

“But I hit a little chip 5 iron on the green and was happy to make my par.”

Toms returned to the 17th during practice rounds this week. If there were bad memories, they didn’t linger. Toms has been there too many times before. He knows what can happen, even when a ball appears to be safe on the green. It just happened to him, allowing K.J. Choi to win in a playoff.

“To be quite honest, what I did last year has nothing to do with what takes place tomorrow morning,” he said Wednesday. “I have to go out and prove it to myself and play those holes; that I can do it again and try to get right back in the mix. A lot of things have to go right, on any given week, for you to have a chance to win. That will be no different this week.”

Toms did not protest that it was used in a playoff. He did not care that the island green came so late in the round.

“It’s the 17th hole. It’s an island green. A lot can happen,” Toms said. “I think it’s great for this tournament, for the fan base. Maybe not great for the players having to play it late in a round or trying to win a golf tournament, because there’s really no bailout room. I think it creates a lot of buzz for this even. I just approach it that way. You’ve got to play the hole four times, and hopefully, you hit good shots.”

In his case, he had to play it five times, which turned out to be one time too many.

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