It’s the ultimate in risk-versus-reward, the centerpiece of a million bucket lists, the subject of countless cheesy break-room motivational posters. It’s the Island Green at TPC Sawgrass, the trademark hole of The Players Championship, and it’s the golf hole even non-golf fans can understand. As the 2023 version of The Players tees off this week, it will once again serve as either salvation or damnation for many of the world’s best.
The Island Green’s gentle deception begins with its name; it’s not really an island, but “Peninsula Green” doesn’t have the same evocative ring. It’s 137 yards, give or take, from tee to green, meaning pros can — in theory — pitch right onto the green. But it’s also only about 24 yards wide, with zero margin for error, which turns a routine pitch into a nerve-wracking prayer of a swing.
“It’s like having a 3 o’clock appointment for a root canal,” British Open champion Mark Calcavecchia once said. “You’re thinking about it all morning and you feel bad all day. You kind of know, sooner or later, you’ve got to get to it.”
As with so much else in golf, the factors that fans enjoy watching — swirling winds, slick greens, clutching rough — are the factors that infuriate pros. And the players at The Players don’t care much for the Island Green, primarily because it’s so unforgiving. Just look how three of the world’s best played it last year:
Last year, the hole played to an over-par average of 3,265 strokes, with 44 players recording a double-bogey or worse. Brooks Koepka in particular is an astonishing 20-over par at the Island Green since his first Players in 2015. Last year, he put his tee shots in both the first and second rounds into the water, carding a double- and triple bogey on the hole.
Koepka acknowledged last year that the toughest tee shot on the PGA Tour was the tee shot on 17, and laughed that the second-toughest is the drop zone on 17. “Yeah,” Koepka conceded, “I haven’t played that hole very well.”
A happy accident
The words “diabolical” and “Pete Dye” appear together often; the famous golf course designer was legendary for the hidden challenges, tricks and traps tucked into his courses. Strategically placed bunkers, trees and water challenge the nerve and the skill of even the game’s toughest players, and Sawgrass as a whole, which opened in 1980 just off the coast near Jacksonville, Florida, is a fitting testament to Dye’s vision and philosophy.
Pros didn’t care much for Dye’s design; Ben Crenshaw once called Sawgrass “Star Wars golf, designed by Darth Vader.”
Jack Nicklaus offered a characteristic bone-dry reply when asked if he liked the course: “No, I’ve never been very good at stopping a 5-iron on the hood of a car.”
Most of Dye’s wicked designs were the result of years of deliberate planning. The 17th, though, came about by accident. Initially designed as a straightforward par 3 with a lake partially fronting the green, Dye carved into the rich sand around what is now the 17th green — and kept digging, and kept digging, using it all over the course. When Dye’s wife Alice, a course designer in her own right, saw the in-progress excavation, she suggested that the lake wrap the entire green. Fifty thousand redistributed cubic yards of sand later, the Island Green was born.
The most famous shot at the Island Green probably belongs to — who else? — Tiger Woods, who rolled in a triple-breaker that was, to borrow a phrase from announcer Gary Koch, better than most:
The strangest? Matt Kuchar’s backward chip. When you’re hard up against the water and there’s nowhere to stand, you have to get creative:
By far the oddest moment came in 1998, when a seagull apparently took objection to Brad Fabel’s ball and proceeded to steal it, and then drop it in the water:
(Fabel was permitted to play the ball in its original spot; what is now Section 9.3 in the Rules of Golf does not penalize players if the ball was moved by “natural forces.”)
Is the 17th a good hole?
Backward chips and thieving wildlife aside, it’s worth asking whether the 17th is a fair hole at all. It’s certainly a tough one, playing at over par, and when the wind kicks up, the swirl can make challenging the pin almost impossible. That, combined with the extreme penalty for wayward tee shots, enrages golf course purists with little patience for island greens in general.
“The concept is just awful,” course architect Ian Andrew told Golf Digest in 2020. “The shot has no safe play or alternative route. A player can easily find themselves in a position where they can’t finish the hole and potentially the round.” (That’s not totally true; there are legends of players who literally putted their way around the hole, up the isthmus and onto the green. But that’s not advisable in a tournament situation.)
For pros, though, the Island Green’s primary weapon is psychological torture. You can be playing the round of your life, but you know that the Island Green lurks out there, the penultimate hole of the round, waiting to devour your hopes and dreams with one wayward tee shot. The Island Green follows the par-5 16th, the easiest hole on the course, leading to a mental whipsaw — everything good done on one hole can be undone on the next. You can’t get too comfortable until you get through the 17th, and you only have one hole to recover if you torch it.
“I have always said this: I think 17 is a great hole, but not the 17th,” Woods said in 2012. “I think it’s a perfect eighth hole, or something like that.”
Some pros relish the challenge, and some even thrive on it. Rickie Fowler, in what turned out to be his career highlight to date, birdied the 17th three times on a Sunday in 2015 — once in regulation, twice in a playoff to defeat Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia. Seven years earlier, Garcia was on the winning side of a playoff, when Paul Goydos hit his first shot into the water and Garcia’s found land.
However this weekend at the Players turns out, the 17th will be waiting, lurking late to test the game’s best. When the tournament reaches the Island Green for the last time late on Sunday afternoon, all the questions of whether the 17th is a fair test of golf are irrelevant. At that point, it will just be the player, the pin and a whole lot of water between them. Whatever happens next, it’ll be memorable…one way or another.