There are few holes on America’s PGA Tour that capture the imagination quite like the 17th at TPC Sawgrass, home to this week’s Players Championship.
A par three, just 137 yards in length, the scorecard presented to members of the best field in golf will betray little of the menace that lies in wait on the penultimate hole of Pete Dye’s Stadium Course.
For this island hole is not so much a test of golfing prowess, but an examination of character and mental strength.
As part of an exciting closing trilogy of holes, it represents the middle episode of an almost always absorbing drama to crown the winner of golf’s self-styled “fifth major”.
The par-five 16th, at 523 yards, offers rewards for those who go for the green in two, playing to an average of 4.46 as opposed to 4.96 for those laying up. Since 2003, players going for the green are a total 2,564 under par, those who don’t 78 under.
The water-lined par-four 18th hole is not only the most difficult on the course, but last season was also the second toughest hole on the PGA Tour schedule, last year’s tournament returning more double bogeys or worse (57) than birdies (37) according to official Tour statistics.
And then there is the meat in the Sawgrass sandwich.
It is the expanse of water between tee box and island green that can unsettle even the most confident of pros and with a massive grass bank for spectators to the left of the lake the atmosphere can get pretty feisty as the sun beats down and the beers flow, as Sergio Garcia experienced in 2015 as he chased a second Players title, losing a play-off with Americans Kevin Kisner and eventual champion Rickie Fowler.
Much like Augusta National’s par-three 12th, the island hole can be the undoing of championship hopes.
Garcia has a colourful history there. In 2008, winning a play-off with Paul Goydos at 17 after his rival had found the drink but then seeing his chances in 2013 foundering there, the co-leader twice finding the water for a quadruple-bogey seven.
Last year, though, his return as newly-minted Masters champion saw him just the eighth player to ace the 17th.
How Garcia fares this time around is anyone’s guess given his Masters title defence was ruined with an opening-round 13 at the 13th, but he will not be the only one approaching 17 with trepidation.
The field is a combined 762 over par over the last 15 years at the hole, a total boosted by the 12 posted there by Bob Tway in 2005, with 69 of last year’s field getting wet.
Kim Si-woo has history against him for no-one has successfully defended their title at The Players with Adam Scott’s T8 in 2005 the most recent top-10 finish for a returning champion.
Kim’s 2017 success followed certain trends though, the Korean emulating 2016 champion Jason Day by leading the field in scrambling (81.48 per cent) and par-four scoring average (3.83). Kim also ranked second in Strokes Gained: Off The Tee, while eight of the last nine champions have finished inside the top 10 in scrambling.
Australia’s Day is also the form horse following victory in Sunday’s Wells Fargo Championship in a season which saw him also win the Farmers Insurance Open, his first victory since his Sawgrass two years previously.
He also leads the PGA Tour this season in Strokes Gained: Putting and Sand Saves Percentage.
Eight of the last 14 champions have been first or second in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green and the last five winners have ranked inside the top five for the same category. Wells Fargo also threw into sharp focus the consistency of other 2018 tournament winners.
Paul Casey (Valspar Championship) and 2007 Players champion Mickelson (WGC-Mexico Championship), claimed ties for fifth place, five shots back, while reigning Masters champion Patrick Reed finished eighth, just one extra shot in arrears.
Bay Hill winner Rory McIlroy will rue his second round 76 at Quail Hollow last Friday, his 29th birthday, which fell between rounds of 69 and 66 as he finished tied for 16th in his first start since a disappointing Masters final-round 74 sent the Northern Irishman into a tie for fifth.
McIlroy has taken time to adjust to Sawgrass, missing his first three cuts here before recording three consecutive top-10s from 2013-15.
FedEx points leader Justin Thomas has made the cut in each of his three starts in this tournament, including a T3 in 2016, and has two wins this season.
And while missing the cut in his last three starts at TPC Sawgrass, Jordan Spieth’s stats bode well for his return as he leads the Tour in scrambling (70.12%) and ranks third in greens in regulation (71.53%).
Masters runner-up Fowler is also the most recent American victor at The Players, his 2015 success bringing us full circle as there has been no better finish in the tournament’s history. Fowler’s birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie finish forced that play-off with Garcia and Kisner.
He would visit 17 twice more in sudden death, playing it six times in total that week. He birdied it five times out of six.