‘There’s nothing you could do’: Tales from an impossible day at the 17th hole at the Players

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Shortly after noon ET on Saturday, the first victims of the 17th hole of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass arrived.

Scottie Scheffler, who had won in two of his past three starts on the PGA Tour, drew the short straw as the Players resumed and was the first player to hit a tee shot on the par-3 17th, which is either one of the most entertaining or infamous holes in golf.

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Scheffler stepped off the tee box for the correct distance and gauged the 35 mph wind blowing in his face as he looked at the island green (really a peninsula) at No. 17. The Texan settled on a 7-iron and hit a low bullet. His shot was too long. The ball bounced once before dropping into the pond behind the green.

After watching what Scheffler did, Xander Schauffele, the seventh-ranked player in the world and the Olympic gold medalist, elected for an 8-iron. The wind gusted as his ball was in flight, just as it had on the 16th hole in the final round of the 2021 Masters, and his ball fell into the pond short of the green. He then went and quadrupled the 18th hole.

Brooks Koepka, a four-time major champ, also chose to hit an 8-iron. Like Schauffele’s, his shot was woefully short and ended up wet.

Just like that, three of the best players in the world saw their chances of winning the Players Championship (or even making the cut) evaporate on the 17th hole. Schauffele, who was 4 under after carding a birdie on the par-5 16th, ended up making a bogey. He made a quadruple-bogey 8 on the 18th hole.

“There’s nothing you can do,” Koepka said. “We hit a gust. I don’t think it was going harder for anybody else out here than when me, Scottie and Xander played it. When we first teed off, that was my first shot of the day, and I thought it was blowing the hardest.”

Actually, the wind didn’t calm down for pretty much anyone on Saturday. After heavy rain and thunderstorms suspended play on both Thursday and Friday, players who were finishing up the first round and beginning their second were greeted by much cooler temperatures and wind gusts that hit as high as 43 mph.

On Thursday and Friday combined, the cumulative score for players on the 17th hole was 3 over. There were just four balls hit into the water and there were 22 birdies. On Saturday, the cumulative score was 66 over. There were 29 balls hit into the water and only two birdies. Five of the first eight players knocked their ball into the drink.

The worst part for Koepka, Schauffele and Scheffler on Saturday was that they had to play the 17th hole twice, after finishing their last three holes of the first round and then starting the second round on No. 10. It was like having to play Gonzaga in the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament.

The results were better for only Schauffele, who hit his tee shot to 53 feet and two-putted for par. Scheffler’s shot was even worse, as he hit a hosel rocket that plopped into the pond about halfway between the green and the old flower barge.

Koepka’s tee shot was about 70 yards short and wet. Scheffler made double bogey; Koepka carded a triple.

“It’s luck,” Koepka said. “It’s one of those things you just try to hit the right shot. It’s like anything. You try to hit the right shot, and hopefully it doesn’t gust up or doesn’t die down the second you do it.”

No one has had worse luck on the hole than Koepka, who is 20 over on the 17th in seven appearances at the Players since 2015.

Jeff Young, a longtime spotter for NBC Sports, said he has worked the 17th hole for 20 years. Until this year, he remembered only two players — Fred Funk and Loren Roberts — hitting a 7-iron on the par-3 hole. On Saturday, nine of the first 15 players hit a 7-iron. Matt Kuchar hit a 6-iron.

Club selection caused a lot of anxiety between caddies and players. Right after Billy Horschel hit his shot with a 7-iron, with the ball still in the air, he told his caddie, Mark Fulcher: “It’s over the green, Fooch. I knew it! I knew it! I flight it better than everyone else.” Fulcher stood stoically and didn’t say anything. Horschel made a triple-bogey 6 and dropped four shots on the last two holes of the first round.

With the wind behind him on the par-5 16th hole, Koepka said he hit a 7-iron about 205 yards. On the 17th hole, his ball went 105 yards with the same club. Rory McIlroy’s 7-iron went 123 yards on the 17th hole; he normally hits it between 185 and 190 yards.

“You’re looking there, and it’s such a big target to hit the green,” McIlroy said. “Basically, it’s a big massive dartboard, and you’re like, ‘Just hit it anywhere on there.'”

That was easier said than done, even for the best iron players in the world. Any shot on the green — or even just on the island and dry — was considered a victory. Australia’s Marc Leishman did a fist pump and jiggle after knocking his shot to 7 feet. Zach Johnson, the next U.S. Ryder Cup captain, hit his shot to about 63 feet. He jokingly threw up his right fist in celebration.

Not everyone struggled. Justin Thomas played the 17th twice on Saturday and walked away with a pair of pars. Thomas said he received text messages on Friday night from Tiger Woods and Fred Couples, who were teasing him about how difficult the hole was going to be.

“They were both giving me a hard time last night about how hard it was going to be [on Saturday],” Thomas said. “I really enjoyed that from them while they weren’t playing it and I had to, with how hard it was going to be. … It’s a lot more fun when someone tells you a story of them doing it versus you have to it.”

After Henrik Stenson knocked his ball safely onto the green with an 8-iron, longtime caddie Gareth Lord reached into his bag for a cigarette.

“On the green, I’m looking forward to this one,” Lord said.

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