PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — It didn’t take long for the inhabitants of golf’s great colosseum to grow irritated.
By 5 p.m. local time on Thursday, their blood lust had turned to utter frustration. For eight hours, they’d waited patiently in their perch surrounding the 17th tee box at the Players Championship. Now, it was becoming increasingly clear that they would leave TPC Sawgrass unfulfilled.
They’d outlasted the doldrums of the morning wave without hesitation, survived the afternoon rain storm, even withstood a forced evacuation of all but those seated in corporate hospitality. Now it was evening — the ninth hour of Michelob Ultra and Grey Goose consumption — and the masses had seen but a single sacrificial lamb.
On Thursday at the Players, more than 75 tee shots were struck on the 17th, and of those tee shots, only one wound up in the water.
Soon, a Canadian pro named Roger Sloan stepped up to the tee box, and the coliseum snapped to attention. As close to a hundred golfers had done before him, Sloan plunged his wedge into the ground and sent his ball flying toward the large, island green.
It landed safely on the putting surface with a hard thud, then zipped back in Sloan’s direction. Within seconds, the ball was picking up steam, headed directly toward the island green’s wooded edge.
The crowd smelled blood, hooting with anticipation as it neared closer to the pond.
Suddenly, Sloan’s ball crashed into a small tuft of grass along the water’s edge and screeched to a stop. It’d remained in play by no more than eight inches.
The masses groaned.
“Oh, come on!” A spectator cried out.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Yelled another.
It was hard to blame them for their frustration. The 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass is typically renowned for its ability to create chaos. Last year, 35 players dumped their tee shots into the water during round one. In 2007, 50 players, or more than a third of the field, found the drink, the most ever.
On Thursday though, the 17th was renowned mostly for its alcohol selection. Of the 69 players who completed the first round Thursday, 44 of the made par on the 17th, and 13 made birdies. There were no aces, only 11 bogeys, and the yawning lake managed to claim only a single tee shot.
So what gives? Apparently, the greens.
“I’ve got to say these conditions are very much what I grew up in, rainy, muggy, soft conditions,” said Jon Rahm. “I couldn’t have imagined anything better for me to kind of get back into the groove.”
The weather saved Rahm (three under) from an uncharacteristically poor ball striking performance on Thursday. And, for those who did have their A-game, the soft, still conditions proved optimal for vaulting into early contention.
“I had ultimate control over the golf ball today,” said Kramer Hickok, who shot an opening round 67. “Conditions were very favorable for us. It was perfect scoring conditions for what this tournament can yield. Last year was super firm and fast, and this is about as soft and pristine as I think I’ve seen it.”
Without heavy rains curbing the 17th’s usual headlong winds and bouncy landing areas, the hole lost a glut of strategic bite through Thursday and the early portion of Friday.
“Really the only tough shot with soft greens was 17,” Keith Mitchell agreed. Mitchell, like Sloan, narrowly avoided spinning his tee shot off the front of the green.
“Yeah, it just spun pretty hard,” he said. “I hit it where I wanted to, just didn’t go … It’s so hard to keep it on the top shelf without spinning it down.”
But for fans preparing to enter the colossus at the island green this weekend, there is good news. As those who did find the water will tell you (through noon on Friday, the number stands at four), conditions might make a shot play easier, but they can’t make it feel easier.
“Well, I was s—ing my pants when I got up [to the drop zone] because the angle was just so bad,” said Harold Varner III, who was the lone water ball on the 17th Thursday. “I wasn’t sure. I got up there, and it was just a little funky, but I was more scared that it might go in the water again. When it was coming down, I was like, ‘not another one.'”
For those headed to the island green this weekend, might Varner provide a word of advice?
Prepare your pitchforks, the show is about to begin.
“I’ve seen it a thousand times. Just happened to be me this time,” he said. “There will be more balls in there. Might be mine. Might be someone else’s.”