Fast greens and No. 17 make Players field nervous

As the Golf Fates would have it, floppy-haired Will Wilcox was the first to come calling to the biggest little hole in golf, No. 17, during Saturday’s third round of the Players Championship.

Just the day before, he had mocked this proud par 3, the most topical isle in golf. Jarring the first hole-in-one on the island hole — a peninsula, really — in 14 years, Wilcox had engaged in a wild, screaming, flailing celebration that was more spring break at Mountasia than fifth major at TPC Sawgrass.

Adding to the insult, he was using a yellow golf ball.

On Saturday, the revenge of TPC Sawgrass began with Wilcox (who had started his round early on the back nine). This time, his wedge to the 129-yard hole never sniffed the 3,900 square feet of green that seems to float like an oversized lily pad. Splash, a good 10 yards short of the crosstie wall that defines the front of the green.

You could almost hear the course issue a satisfied sigh — or was that just the wind picking up a tick?

There was trouble all over the lot Saturday. The greens turned treacherous overnight, setting up as if top-dressed with Quikrete.

This inspired all sorts of colorful imagery. “Felt like I was putting on dance floors,” Billy Horschel said.

All seemed to agree these greens were the fastest they had experienced, and these guys have toured places where the putting surfaces make the deck of an aircraft carrier seem like a Sleep Number mattress.

Run the numbers from the afternoon: Sixty of the 76 players put up at least one double bogey or worse (a total of 86 double bogeys-plus for the day). There were 149 three-putts throughout the field.

Thus could Jason Day shoot 73 and still carry a four-shot lead into Sunday’s final round.

All that, and No. 17 still was fighting for a place in infamy.

When Russell Knox stepped to the tee there late Saturday, the Scotsman who makes his home nearby considered all the hype over the hole a little overblown. He said the only time he had ever hit it into the water there was purposeful, before the tournament two years ago just to get it out of his system.

“It’s such an easy shot when you have no nerves or adrenalin. A pro will never miss that. We should know what we’re doing,” he said.

Then came Saturday. “That’s the first, second and third time I ever did it,” said Knox with a wry smile.

He was 8 under for the tournament at the time, on the cusp of contention. He went to No. 18, out of it at 1 under. Three balls in the water, his second a dead shank with a pitching wedge, led to a sextuple-bogey 9.

Knox gets it now. “The green felt like it was the size of a quarter,” he said

Among the more famous holes in all of golfdom is No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass — it certainly holds the distinction of most media coverage per yard.

It is one of the first images you see when the network coverage signs on and one of the last when the screen fades to local news. It is the signature that endorses golf’s biggest first-place paycheck. Every golfer wants play it. Every snorkeler wants to mine it for the 100,000-plus balls that meet a watery end there.

As scary as the hole may look, the numbers have not supported the impression. According to a pre-tournament Wall Street Journal, the average score for PGA Tour players on the hole since 2011 has been just a hair over par, 3.05. That would rank it only the 95th most difficult par 3 out of 158 on courses that have hosted at least four tournaments over that time, the Journal reported.

Yet, there were 17 balls in the water Saturday, surpassing the total from the first two rounds (15).

Mark Calcavecchia once likened No. 17 to an afternoon appointment for a root canal — “You’re thinking about it all morning and you feel bad all day.”

All the hubbub over the speed of the greens lessened the hole’s standing as the collection point of all calamity. “That today was just another hole, there was carnage on every other hole,” said former Georgia Tech player Bryce Molder (6 under for the tournament, after a bogey from the water on No. 17).

But it will remain the focus of so much coverage in Sunday’s final round, whatever the size of Day’s lead. Because it always is.

And for the record, the revenge against the young Wilcox was complete. He shot 82 on Saturday.

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