The thirteenth hole on Pete Dye’s Stadium Course at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass is a straightforward par 3 that measures 150 yards from the blue tees. The hole is nowhere near as famous or as frightening as the island-green seventeenth, but if you draw the ball the green might as well be an island because there’s water both in front and on the left.
Despite the dangers, I was briskly confident as I stepped up to the tee. The day before, during my practice round, I had chipped in from the fringe for a birdie, and I had birdied the following hole as well, and (because golf is an easy game) I had parred the hole after that. Now, waggling my 8-iron and visualizing a soaring draw, I glanced one last time at the flag, and half-shanked my ball into the trees on the right.
“I’d better hit a provisional,” I said, not feeling particularly concerned. I teed up another ball, and, with a swing grooved through long and patient repetition, half-shanked it into the same stand of trees.
“I see the second ball,” someone shouted. Five minutes of crawling through dense undergrowth failed to turn up the first. I crouched in a bush to survey my prospects. To put my second ball on the green, I calculated, I would need to hit a crisp thirty-yard smother-hooked 4-iron through a window-sized gap in the branches, applying enough backspin to keep the ball from skidding off the green into low earth orbit. I declared the ball unplayable and returned to the tee. I took a deep breath and swung again. My third ball found the water on the left.
An eerie hush fell over my playing partners. I felt my consciousness rise slowly out of my body and gaze down, with ineffable pity, at my golf hat. I dropped a fourth ball, at the front of the teeing area, and, with my pitching wedge, yanked it safely onto the far left corner of the green, perhaps fifty feet from the pin. Three putts later, I had my ten.
From that point forward, my memories of my round are indistinct. I had been playing pretty well before my disaster, but I ended up with a 102, including double or triple bogeys on all the remaining holes except the celebrated seventeenth, on which I had a seven. (First ball into the water over the green; second ball into deep rough next to a piling at the rear of the green after bouncing hard and high off a piling at the front; chunky chip; three putts.) As I watched an official inscribe my score on the big board near the clubhouse, I wondered whether I ought not to give up golf altogether, for the good of the game.
All that happened twenty years ago. The tournament in which I was competing was not, quite obviously, the Players Championship, which is held at the Stadium Course each spring and is underway this week. It was an amateur event that no longer exists, alas—a bargain-priced multi-day event on what was then known as the Partners Tour.
But, even though the Partners Tour is defunct, you should find an excuse to play Sawgrass. Hacking your way around a memorable course that you can watch the pros play on TV is both exciting and instructive, and the Stadium Course is the most engaging regular tour venue that mere civilians can play for a somewhat reasonable price. Bay Hill, Cog Hill, Doral, Harbour Town, and Torrey Pines are also possibilities. So is Pebble Beach, although eighteen holes there, including obligatory add-ons, may cost more the annual dues at your home club, and your round will seem to last for several days, and the greens will disappoint you, and the people in the group in front of yours will turn out to have taken up golf the day before yesterday. The Stadium Course is fun to play, and when you later watch the Players Championship—the fifth major!—on TV (as I assume you are doing today, instead of working) you will recognize more than just the last two holes. Playing a tour course will help you appreciate how the pros make their living, and the next time Rory or Tiger or Phil dumps one in the water on seventeen you can tell your buddies, “Hey, I’ve done that.”