PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It is an island, a short-iron shot, and a roughly 215-step walk from tee to green.

That walk takes players between a long row of red Knockout roses along water’s edge, and well-wishers’ hands (often small ones) thrust over the yellow, nylon gallery rope. Ryan Moore touches seemingly every one of them after his opening-round hole-in-one. Sam Ryder, on the way to making a quadruple-bogey 7, passes by three times (long story, below). Spikes clatter up the cart path, or tread quieter up a thin strip of grass, from one enormous video board behind the tee (21 X 63 feet) to another behind the green (18 X 52). Yep, they’re bigger this year.

The par-3 17th hole at the TPC Sawgrass is all of these things, and yet any physical description of the place somehow falls woefully short.

“To me, this is the coolest hole in golf,” says Tom Swartz, who is wearing an army green North Dakota State T-shirt, khaki shorts and a pair of black running shoes. He’s standing between the 17th tee and the 16th green, in the shadow of the hospitality chalets, which provide 145,000 square feet of indoor seating. Swartz and two friends, snowbirds from Minnesota, have come straight to 17 because … well, there was really no debate.

This is Swartz’s first time at a professional tournament. He explains that his hometown of Grafton, in northeast North Dakota, borders Minnesota and Canada, and so, “We don’t get to play too much golf because the season is only three months long. I just saw on Facebook my neighbor can’t get the back door open today because of the blizzard. You really need to play this tournament in March, because by May, the snowbirds are gone.”

Byeong Hun An makes the tournament’s first birdie, Scott Brown the first water ball. Tiger Woods will make a run and get to 5 under before twice finding the water at 17 on the way to a quadruple-bogey 7 on Friday. Just like that, the winner of 80 PGA TOUR events and the only man to win THE PLAYERS in both March and May plummets down the board.

 

Even non-golfers understand the stakes at 17.

Maybe it’s all that water that leaves people in a reflective mood. Or maybe it’s the realization that they’ve arrived at a sort of nexus of the golfing universe. Swartz, who has relocated to Orlando and works at the University of Central Florida, calls himself a bogey golfer but launches into a story about how he and his grandfather, Wilmer, once each made a hole-in-one just months apart on the same hole back in Grafton. Years later, his brother, a much better player, aced the same hole in a tournament. Grandpa Wilmer, Swartz adds, played all the way until “his leg stopped working when he was 98.” He reached the century club two years later.

Just a few paces away, Sherry Hice, of Jacksonville, is also talking ancestors.

“Both of our grandfathers were born here, which is unusual,” says Hice as she nods to her male friend, who is eating a hamburger in the camp chair next to hers.

“I know where to watch this tournament,” she adds, “because I’ve been coming here forever.”

rh_y3291_20190315104822126.jpg

Tiger Woods reacts Friday after hitting his tee shot in the water on No. 17. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Well, almost that long. Hice remembers attending the 1975 Greater Jacksonville Open at nearby Hidden Hills, and she used to volunteer as a walking scorer for THE PLAYERS. She recalls being assigned to follow Seve Ballesteros, and once, when he hit a tee shot in close proximity, she says, “I felt it all over me. It was the most amazing moment I ever had.”

The 17th is the Ballesteros or Arnold Palmer of golf holes — it looks great on TV. And those video boards are the TV, showing the action in real time and providing useful stats. Bubba Watson makes the tournament’s second birdie, Sergio Garcia the third. The group of Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Matt Kuchar all make 2, “Kooch” from tap-in range. Patrick Cantlay makes from 37 feet, 3 inches. Charl Schwartzel hits the second water ball.

For the first time ever, players can putt with the pin in, the flag fluttering in the gentle breeze out of the south and this year with an inscription in honor of Alice Dye, who died Feb. 1 at 91: “Why not just make an island green?” THANK YOU, ALICE

With the front pin placement to start the week, the hole plays to just 121 yards. Michael and Audrey Berry, from east Tennessee, have come through the gates at 7:30 a.m. to set up chairs behind the tee. Audrey, an elementary school librarian, charts the shots on her program. Those who hit the green get a check mark, while those who don’t are marked “long” or “short,” the worst kind adjectives here. Before long, Audrey is holding a Sawgrass Splash, the signature cocktail of THE PLAYERS.

“The girl said, ‘Do you want me to make it how it’s written,’” Berry says with a bemused smile, “‘or how I like to make it?’ I said, ‘Make it the way you like to make it.’”

On the tee in front of them, Jeff Young, the spotter for NBC Golf Channel, gathers the players’ club choices and relays the information to the on-air talent, mostly Gary Koch. Young has been working on the tee since 2002, a stretch that he says spans more than 7,500 tee shots. Caddies will sometimes saunter over and try to look over his shoulder at his clipboard.

“There was one guy,” says Young, 73, “I don’t remember the name, but he hit the pylon behind the green and it bounced over the water. He went back there and hit the shot, and hit the same pylon, and the ball bounced onto the green and he made the putt for par. Try that sometime.”

All-time shots from the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass

  •  
  • Top 10

    All-time shots from the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass

 

Ron Heller, a 12-year NFL veteran, mostly as an offensive tackle with the Philadelphia Eagles, is also working the tee, as a marshal. In his navy PLAYERS polo over his sizeable frame, his PLAYERS cap over his shaved head, he looks a bit like Mr. Clean, but bigger: 6-foot-7 and just under his playing weight of 300 pounds. When he holds up his arms for quiet, people obey.

“I questioned whether I wanted to do this again because of the heat,” says Heller, who spends half the year at Sawgrass and half in Montana. “But it’s so nice in March. I’m glad I came back.”

Ryder, in his first-ever crack at 17, could be excused for feeling heated as he peers down at his ball. It has cleared the water but wedged between the grass and the wood, outside the hazard line. He tosses it into the water, walks back to the Drop Zone, hits his third shot into the drink, takes another drop, hits the green, and two-putts for a 7.

Back along the path to the green, another marshal, Christina Rankin, reports on a different sort of drama.

“We had an osprey and a heron going at it for the same fish,” says Rankin, who is stationed by the roses, just steps from the western edge of the water hazard. “The heron came up with it, and the osprey came and snatched it out of his beak. It was awesome.”

A systems analyst for the Navy, Rankin’s job on 17 consists mostly of raising her arms to call for silence as players address the ball. In the idle moments, she’s allowed to sit in her camp chair.

Awesome might be the most apt description of 17. It delivers every year and keeps on giving. Moore’s ace, which nailed the flagstick and fell straight down into the hole. The breathtaking way it erased all of Woods’ progress. And more drama, the likes of which we can only guess at, this weekend, when someone else will take those 215 steps into history.