PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | Hal Sutton only wanted one thing.
“Be the right club, today,” Sutton said, watching his 6-iron approach shot cut through the north Florida sky on a Monday morning 19 years ago.
For two days, Sutton and Tiger Woods had chased the Players Championship title, Sunday afternoon turning into Monday morning and it had all come down to the par-4 18th, the menacing finishing hole that lands like the second punch in a rib-jarring combination that starts at the famous par-3 17th.
Sutton led by one and Woods had missed the 18th green to the right. One swing and Sutton could win his second Players title, 17 years after his first.
“I had 179 to the flag and it was a perfect 6-iron for me, not too hard, not too easy,” Sutton said this week. “When I hit it, I looked up and it was headed right at the flag.
“My first thought was just what I said. I didn’t want the wind or any outside force take anything away from that shot. I was just ready for it to be over.
“It was a moment of passion.”
The world watches the 17th hole with its island-like green, players and fans holding their breath with each shot that’s launched toward the green.
It’s the 18th hole – a 462-yard street fight – that is the final piece in the diabolical puzzle that Pete and Alice Dye dug out of the muck all those years ago. If playing the 17th hole is like opening a closed door in a scary movie, the 18th is what’s behind that door.
Asked years ago the best way to play the water-framed par-18th hole, 1988 Players Championship winner Mark McCumber had a simple answer:
“With a four-stroke lead,” he said.
Adam Scott doesn’t need that much.
“You’d like to have a three-shot lead, that’s for sure,” said Scott, who owns a page in the history of the 18th hole, having dunked his second shot into the water there before getting up and down with a 6-iron to win the 2004 Players Championship by one stroke.
If the par-5 16th hole offers the teasing possibility of a two-putt birdie, maybe even an eagle, and the movie-star famous 17th demands one good swing, the 18th offers an uncluttered challenge:
“You have to hit four really good golf shots to walk off with a par,” Masters champion Patrick Reed said.
It sounds simple.
Make a par.
It wasn’t easy when the course opened and the hole measured 440 yards. Now that it’s been stretched, hitting the fairway looks more like what pilots must see when they’re landing on an aircraft carrier at night.
There’s no place to miss.
“Anything starts left, it’s not coming back and you’re going to have to be dropping up on the next tee or playing from there again.” – Tiger Woods
Stand on the slender tee, a flat spot at the bottom of a small hill, and it looks as if Pete and Alice forgot to build a fairway. The tee points directly into the lake which looks large enough to handle water skiers.
A short wooden wall separates the water and the fairway, which gently boomerangs from right to left, the edge between wet and dry as narrow as a footprint.
The fairway slopes just enough toward the water that on dry, firm days good tee shots can turn into runaway golf balls, particularly when the Players Championship was played in May, when summer had already arrived in north Florida.
The Dye design, at least on the 18th hole, did not include any bailout areas. There is no safe play.
A patch of bushy trees are set off the right side of the fairway, starting just short of 300 yards from the tee and running for more than 50 yards toward the green.
“There’s nothing easy about that hole,” Tiger Woods said. “Anything starts left, it’s not coming back and you’re going to have to be dropping up on the next tee or playing from there again.
“The bail-out, that first tree, I think was 280 to that first tree, and that’s dead. So I’ve tried to play more in the conservative side to try and put it in play, even though I’m a little further back.”
From 2006 through last year, the Players Championship was played in May, changing the nature of the course. Perhaps no hole was more affected than the 18th, which tended to play shorter with the prevailing southwesterly winds and Bermuda grass fairways.
The hole’s distance wasn’t the challenge. It was all about getting the ball in play off the tee.
“It’s been very difficult forever. Certainly the last few years because it seems like with the firmer fairways in May, it was easier to run out down the right. But you can’t go left,” Scott said.
“We’ve seen a lot of players in the trees since we’ve been in May. I think prior to that we probably saw a lot of guys in the water.”
Reed knows all about it.
“For me in the past with how dry it was, drawing the ball it was always going left toward the water. If you hit it straight down the right side, it would go through,” Reed said.
“I’ve struggled on that hole until last year. I finally just said it’s just a normal hole, hit a driver and hit a draw down that right side.”
Getting a tee shot in the fairway is just the start. The approach is similarly unforgiving. There is water left and deep, rough-covered humps and swales to the right.
This year, with northerly wind, Woods hit 3-wood, 3-iron into the green during a practice round. Last year, Reed said he hit a driver and 51-degree wedge to a back pin. This year, it’s driver, 5-iron.
“It’s so much easier in May because, I mean, it’s a nothing tee shot because it’s always downwind,” Woods said. “We always got the south wind here. And it’s just some kind of hybrid or 3-iron for me or even a 5-wood and some kind of wedge or 9-iron to the green.
“Flip it to March, and it becomes very different hole. Now you’re forced to hit driver, and from there it’s going to be a tough fit, and generally if you have a north wind, it’s slightly off the left, and off the left and with that hazard, it’s a tough tee shot.
“And then you have that second shot where you can’t bail right. You can’t bail short. You got to hit two really good golf shots to finish it off. And if you can play that hole in 16 for the week, you’re going to be picking up a lot of shots on the field.”
Billy Foster, the long-time caddie for Lee Westwood who now works with Matthew Fitzpatrick, has walked the 18th fairway for decades.
The hole begins before players get there, Foster said.
“Players walk off the 17th green and think, phew! I’ve got past that now,” Foster said. “I think the 18th would put the fear of God into you at any stage.”
Watch the Players Championship and there is a video loop of familiar moments at the 17th, from Fred Couples’ third-shot ace to Len Mattiace drowning his chance at winning to Tiger Woods’ “better than most” putt. Mostly, it shows shot after shot going into the water.
But the 18th hole is more difficult.
Since 1983, the 18th hole has produced 1,130 double bogeys while the 17th has counted 1,017. The 18th has also produced more triple bogeys than the 17th.
“If you’re tied for the lead or you’re up one and have to make par on the last, it’s a proper finish,” Reed said.
Sutton knows all about it, having created an everlasting entry into golf’s lexicon.
“I hear it often,” Sutton said. “I’ll be walking through an airport and someone will come up and say, ‘Be the right club, today.’”
As good today as it was 19 years ago.
The 18th hole in full. Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson walk to their tee shots on the last during the second round of the 2016 Players Championship. Photo: Jason Getz, USA Today Sports
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