The island green: gimmick or stroke of genius?

The famous 17th at Sawgrass.

It's Players Championship week at Sawgrass in Florida, which means it is island green time for golf.

The 17th hole at Sawgrass' stadium course, host of the so-called Fifth Major, is famous or infamous, depending on who you speak to.

Built by the renowned architect Pete Dye 40 years ago, it is surrounded by water, just 125 metres long and accessible to players only by a small walking path at the rear. Any errant tee shot goes into the water, sending the offending player to a drop zone that asks him or her to hit over the water.

It was a first, but Dye did not originally intend to make it so. He has acknowledged
over the years that his wife Alice came up with the idea when she saw him digging around the side of the intended putting green. "We just kept digging," said Dye, one of America's foremost golf architects.

What he ended up with is one of the most famous golf holes in the world, and a fierce test of a golfer's nerves given it is the penultimate hole.

Tournaments have been won and lost here, most recently when Sergio Garcia rinsed two golf balls in the pond after he stepped to the tee as co-leader in 2013, taking a quadruple bogey seven. In 2016, the American professional Russell Knox hit three into the drink there, while the record high score in the tournament is 12 by Bob Tway (2005) and Robert Gamez (1990).

It should not be this hard, given it is just a pitching wedge shot for professionals, and the green is quite big. Generally, they handle it with relative comfort, although 50 balls went into the water in the first round of the 2007 Players.

Tens of thousands of people pay big money to sit in the grandstands beside the hole each year. Many more than that pay even bigger cash to get on the course and try their hand in the weeks outside the tournament. It's estimated that 100,000 balls get wet each year at that hole.

As a marketing ploy, it's outstanding. The tour's caddies have their annual challenge there in the week of the Players, and various other organisations hold events there as well.

It is also a complete gimmick, a point that is made often by the game's traditionalists. Tiger Woods, a design aficionado, is said to have told Dye some years ago the hole is in the wrong place in the rota; that it should be played earlier.

Tom Doak, another renowned American architect who drew up Tasmania's wonderful Barnbougle Dunes with Melbourne architect Mike Clayton, has called it "the germ that started the plague", pointing out that because of its status, many more island greens were created around the world.

This is particularly true in Asia but also in Australia as well, at Hidden Valley north of Melbourne, for instance.

Doak, who is redrawing The National's Ocean course at Cape Schank, has owned up to his quote, according to Clayton, the former professional who is based in Melbourne. "I don't think it's that he [Doak] doesn't like it so much,"  Clayton said. "It's just the fact that it spawned all those copies. I mean, I don't like the concept. It's very American.

Sergio Garcia and his caddie walk from the island in 2008.

"It's a bit like people sitting on the corner at a car race waiting for the crash. We wouldn't build it.  Because I'm not a fan of the idea that you hit a decent shot, it bounces on the green and then you take a seven. But it works for the tournament and it's exciting. The ones who copied it, they should all have been drowned at birth.''

Darius Oliver, another course designer and commentator based in Australia, actually likes 17 at Sawgrass, although he hates the dozen or so copies that have jumped up. "It's original and I love the fact it's the 17th on the course,'' Oliver said. "If it was the sixth hole or something, it wouldn't mean so much. I played it once, and I was playing out of my skin that day, but when I got to that tee I got nervous and I actually rinsed one. The green feels smaller than it actually is. It just gets in your head.''

There are much better par-threes in the world: the 12th at Augusta National and the eighth at Royal Troon, called the 'Postage Stamp' because of the tiny green size, for example. In Australia we boast a cluster of world-famous par-threes: the short fifth at Royal Melbourne west,  the 15th at Kingston Heath,  the sixth at NSW and the seventh at The National's old course.

But they all have to dip their lid to Sawgrass this week as the best players in the world negotiate one of their sternest tests. You might not like it. But you can't look away either.

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