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New World Order: Unforgettable Sawgrass 17 moments

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Any other time or place, and PGA Tour professionals would laugh, if not sneer, and attack the flag like the free buffet spread they receive in the lavish TPC Sawgrass clubhouse.

It only measures a shade under 140 yards, little more than a wedge or chipped 9-iron, for the 156 players in the Players Championship field.

But a funny thing happens in the final round, when they all start gripping the wheel and steering like Sunday drivers. Synapses start firing. Capillaries constrict. The 17th green at Sawgrass looks tinier than whatever's left in Rory Sabbatini's wallet.

"When you play on Tuesday and Wednesday, it's a pretty easy hole, a little flip 9-iron, no big deal," as former world No. 1 Tiger Woods once described it. "You get out there in the tournament, all of a sudden there's a pin location that's tucked in the corner or over a slope and the green seems to shrink up a little bit."

That's not all that puckers. Gas begins emanating from player orifices at a frequency so high, only dogs and rabbit-eared Colin Montgomerie can hear it.

There are generally two trains of train-wreckin' thought about the fabled 17th: It's either the most famous water hole in professional golf, or the most infamous. Pretty much the same difference from a players' perspective, plus or minus a triple-bogey on the card.

Tiger was super stoked after draining a famed birdie putt on 17 in 2001. (Getty Images)  
Tiger was super stoked after draining a famed birdie putt on 17 in 2001. (Getty Images)  
This marks the beginning of the third decade that Sawgrass has hosted the flagship event of the PGA Tour, and while designer Pete Dye's landmark par-3 hole hasn't decided every single tournament, it's played a fateful and foreboding role plenty often enough.

All this from a hole that finished 140th out of the 209 par-3s on the PGA Tour in 2010 with a ho-hum stroke average of 3.009 shots, or just a bogey or two above par for the week? Well, it's all a matter of when the bogeys happen, isn't it? On the 17th, timing is everything.

In honor of the beered-up denizens who frequent the amphitheater surrounding the hole, here's this week's New World Order list, our bubbling six-pack of the most unforgettable moments over the first 29 years at the 17th, where hitting it in the drink as a player could drive you to drink in a hurry.

2001: Better than any, actually It's the 30-year anniversary of the event moving to Sawgrass, but this week also marks the 10-year linchpin for the best moment in the hole's history. Woods has rarely contended at cozy Sawgrass over the years, but when the opportunity to win his lone Players title a decade ago presented itself, he made an indelible and crucial mark in the third round on the 17th. After bopping his tee shot onto the back shelf, Woods tapped a double-breaking downhill putt that gathered momentum as NBC analyst Gary Koch offered the now-famous narrative: "Better than most ... better than most ... better than most." Woods unleashed one of the biggest uppercut fist pumps of his career and eventually won by a shot over Vijay Singh. This was the high-water mark on a hole surrounded by water, because from here onward, the most memorable swatches involve bigger splashdowns than they see off the coast of Cape Canaveral.

2007: Second thoughts Sean O'Hair was paired and fighting a battle with eventual winner Phil Mickelson when he stepped to the 17th tee and decided to attack the back pin. He was two shots down with two to play, and on the cusp of the biggest moment of his career -- of the wrong kind. O'Hair grabbed a 9-iron as Koch told viewers it seemed like too much club. In an overhead shot, O'Hair's ball sailed completely over the green into the water on the fly, and then he dunked another from the drop area. By the time he was finished, he shot 76, dropped to 11th place and left $250,000 in the water. "I'm not playing for second," O'Hair said of his aggressive play afterward. Imagine the profundity -- Mickelson actually won a tournament because another player was too gung-ho. Irony with a 9-iron.

2005: His chances went that Tway While not the final-round public de-pantsing of several others on the excruciatingly claustrophobic hole, Bob Tway was nonetheless humiliated six years ago when more than his chances drowned at the 17th. So did four golf balls. Tway, an underrated player, was tied for 10th when he stepped to the tee and dunked his first two tee balls. His second and third landed on the green and spun back into the agua. He finally found dry land with his fifth attempt as the crowd murmured and muttered, then three-putted to complete the carnival of carnage. He made a 12, the highest score in the hole's tournament history. Drowned and deflated, Tway eventually finished 72nd. "You're playing great," Tway said after the deluge. "All of a sudden, in one hole, you might as well be finishing last." Which he pretty much did.

The oft-lubricated crowd is always part of the drama. (Getty Images)  
The oft-lubricated crowd is always part of the drama. (Getty Images)  
1987: Sluman's alma muttering One of the unique aspects of the 17th isn't just the island green, but the high amphitheater that surrounds the hole, where thousands assemble to watch the Christians get fed to the lions, if not the alligators, so to speak. Beer flows freely, as another PGA Championship winner, Jeff Sluman, learned in the final round 24 years ago. One of the nicest gents in the game, Slu was eyeing a 4-footer in sudden death on the 17th, a birdie that would have delivered a victory over Scottish great Sandy Lyle. As Sluman prepared for his shining moment, a fan jumped into the 4-foot-deep water on a dare, creating confusion and drawing a torrent of cheers and boos. Sluman backed off and waited while the kid swam back to the shore after a delay of several minutes and was hauled off by authorities. "I kind of stepped away, and then I heard all the booing," Sluman recalled later. "I thought they were booing me for stepping away from the ball. I mean the shock, the thing goes through your body, and you are like. 'Wow, this is really a tough crowd.' Then you look up and you see some clown having an identity crisis swimming around." Unable to regain his concentration, Sluman missed the putt and lost to Lyle on the 18th. The real rub? The kid who dove in the water attended the same school as Sluman, Florida State, located 150 miles west.

1998: 'Saddest scene in 25 years of tournament golf' Len Mattiace was a popular local player, through and through. As a result, as he stepped to the 17th tee 13 years ago, many in the community as well as the greater golf family were aware of what was happening in his private life. Mattiace's 61-year-old mother, Joyce, in the midst of a losing battle with lung cancer, watched nearby from a wheelchair as her son tried to make up a one-shot deficit with two holes to play. Coming off a birdie on the 16th, Mattiace was pumped up, just like O'Hair would be nearly two decades later, and bombed a 9-iron into the water. An ESPN report described what followed thusly: "The ensuing chain reaction created one of the saddest scenes in the last 25 years of tournament golf." With his mom stationed a few yards away, he lost his composure, made an 8, losing any chance. To this day, it remains one of the most brutal 10-minute intervals in PGA Tour history, given the family back story, Mattiace's local ties and popularity in the locker room. Ouch.

2008: Aye, carramba Paul Goydos had been the media darling all week, wise-cracking, offering bits of self-deprecating humor about his physical appearance and victory drought over the years. Then he very nearly went out and won the biggest event staged by the PGA Tour. Goydos, playing with a baseball cap from his college alma mater on his head instead of a manufacturer's logo, joined Garcia on the 17th tee, the first time the island hole had been the starting point for sudden-death playoffs. The crowd, which had backed him as its everyman pick all week, groaned when Goydos' wedge shot found the water. When Garcia hit a perfect shot to about 3 feet, Goydos congratulated him immediately and never groused about the quirkiness of deciding such a big title on architect Pete Dye's dinky, dunkin' hole. "I think it did exactly what it was designed to do," Goydos said without hesitation. "For me to complain to Pete Dye now would be as sour grapes as you could drop. The hole was designed now to do exactly what it did. It just got me instead of somebody else. And it gets somebody every year." Goydos is a bright guy, is a former school teacher and frequently is correct. So, teach, whose turn will it be in 2011?

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