The seventeenth hole at the TPC at Sawgrass is deservedly famous, but the thirteenth, which is also a par-3, can be almost as intimidating, since from the farthest tournament tee it’s more than 180 yards long, and, to a right-handed player who draws the ball, its green might as well be an island.
I had a demoralizing encounter with the thirteenth twenty years ago, during a tournament on the Partners Tour, a short-lived (and almost certainly money-losing) program that the PGA Tour briefly offered to ordinary golfers. For $1,275, I got one practice round (on the Stadium Course), three tournament rounds (one on the Stadium Course, one on the adjacent Valley Course, and one at Jacksonville Country Club), unlimited extra golf on the Stadium and Valley courses, four nights at the Marriott at Sawgrass, three breakfasts, three lunches, two dinners, and a money clip made of goldium. I also got a locker with my name on it. It was next to the locker of Deane Beman, who at the time was the commissioner of the PGA Tour. I didn’t see Beman, but I did get a pretty good look at his shoe trees and a pair of his socks.
During the first round of the tournament, I was briskly confident as I stepped up to the thirteenth tee. We were playing from the blue tees, from which the hole measures about 150 yards. (The same tees were used during the second round of the Players Championship this year.) 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, without 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-size gap in the branches, applying enough backspin to keep the ball from skidding into low earth orbit. I declared the ball unplayable and returned to the tee. Taking a deep breath, I 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.
Because I had played so poorly in the first round, I was demoted to the old-guy flight for the second round, which we played at the TPC’s Valley Course. The Valley Course, which is right next to the Stadium Course, is very different—it was designed by Pete Dye and Bobby Weed—but it’s still a good, challenging course. (The N.A.I.A. championship had been played there two days earlier.) I was grouped with an old guy from Texas named John, an old guy from South Carolina named Glen, and a regular guy from Florida named Gerry. Like me, Gerry had had a terrible round the day before. (He was a seven-handicap, but had shot 95.) I started out quadruple-bogey, double-bogey, double-bogey—a string of trouble that began when I decided to hit a big tee shot in front of Holly, a nice woman from the Tour office who was sitting at a table by the first tee. This triple disaster was doubly annoying, because the evening before I had parred all three holes in a quick nine-hole practice round with a fellow competitor and a photographer from Golf Digest.
Fourteenth hole, Valley Course.
One thing that makes me nervous on a golf course is wondering when disaster is going to strike. Once disaster has actually struck, I feel a sense of relief: now I know. Finding myself eight over par after three holes, I gave up hope, settled down, and began to make pars. I eased up on my swing, and my shots became longer and straighter. I no longer cared so much about my putts, and they began to drop. I even made a couple of birdies. Part of the credit belongs to my playing partners. John (whose golf shirt had a picture of an oil derrick on it) and Glen made flattering noises every time Gerry or I hit a ball more than 150 yards. Under their benevolent, calming gaze on one hole, I unwound a mighty two-wood—my fraidy-cat driver at that time—and hit what turned out to be the longest drive of the day. My prize was an attaché case with a PGA Tour emblem on it. I was thrilled to receive it—the long-drive winner in a previous tournament had been the mother of the Tour player Robert Gamez—although I later threw it away.