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Hell of a Hole
Jaime Diaz
June 29, 1998
Par was an abstract number on Olympic's devilish 17th
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June 29, 1998

Hell Of A Hole

Par was an abstract number on Olympic's devilish 17th

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The U.S. Open is designed to drive players crazy, but last week's 98th edition was the malfunctioning car alarm of Opens. There was the usual thick rough and fluffy sand, as well as slopes severe enough to kick drives sideways and send putts back to their starting point. What really got under the players' skin, though, was the 17th hole. The uphill 468-yard par-4 was a classic example of the heroic notions USGA officials have about their ultimate championship, and the cruel mind games they play with the golfers.

The hole set the concept of par on its ear. With a scoring average of 4.718 strokes for the four days, the 17th played almost as tough as the 533-yard par-5 1st hole (4.741). Despite having no water hazards, out-of-bounds or fairway bunkers, the 17th was the hardest hole against par of any in the Open since 1982. The field hit the green in regulation only 21.9% of the time, an unheard-of rate of futility. There were only nine birdies all week. In comparison, the second-least-birdied hole was the 4th, a 438-yard par-4, which yielded 26 subpar scores.

The carnage could have been worse. The players were fortunate that the prevailing wind off the Pacific, which blows from green to tee on 17, was never more than a breeze. That was not enough to put them in a generous frame of mind when discussing the hole. "The 17th is basically a way to get from the 16th green to the 18th tee," Jack Nicklaus said disdainfully.

According to the tenets of golf course architecture, the 17th simply doesn't work as a par-4. Because of the slope of the fairway, the hole plays more in the neighborhood of 510 yards. "If this hole is 468 yards," said Nick Price last week, "then I want to buy some real estate from the USGA." Despite a new angle from the tee, which meant the landing area was flatter than the one used in the '87 Open, drives still kicked right when they hit the fairway. For those lucky enough to stop their tee shots in the short grass (and only 61.5% of the drives wound up there), the remaining approach shot of more than 200 yards was to a green that looked more remote than Alcatraz.

A significant number of players could barely reach the green, and then only with a fairway wood. Corey Pavin would have needed his best two shots to get there, and after straining and failing on Friday, he made a triple-bogey 7 and missed the cut by a stroke. For those who couldn't carry the ball all the way to the putting surface, there was only a six-yard opening between two deep bunkers, which came into play about 20 yards short of the green. That was why Loren Roberts decided before the championship that if there was any wind, he would lay up 70 yards short, which he did on Friday, getting up and down for par to make the cut on the number, plus-7.

Those who could reach in two had to contend with the small, crowned and severely left-to-right sloping green that was designed for an approach shot played with a short iron. As the green firmed up each afternoon, good shots bounced over it. In the third round Lee Janzen hit a high, fading three-iron from 210 yards that landed in the middle of the green but ended up in the rough. From there he made his second double bogey on the hole in as many days. "Tomorrow I will cuss that hole out," said Janzen on Saturday, "but I still have to play it once more." He parred it on Sunday to finish the week five over on 17 and five under on Olympic's other 17 holes.

Complaints were music to the ears of the USGA. The 17th fulfilled one of its unwritten rules: that golfers must play a do-or-die long-iron approach on one of the finishing holes at the Open, a shot that the pros are rarely called upon to hit anymore. Olympic has a cluster of such holes on the front nine but, in its usual setup, none down the stretch.

The 17th was designed in 1928 by Sam Whiting as a 500-yard par-5. For the '55 Open, tournament chairman Bob Roos had new tees built on all 18 holes and lengthened the 17th to 522 yards. But USGA executive director Joe Dey decided that he didn't want players hitting short irons into the last three greens and ordered that the 17th be played as a monster par-4 of 461 yards. "I told Dey that meant about half the field wouldn't be able to reach the green," says Roos, now 80. "He said he knew that but didn't care, and what Dey said went." Only Sam Snead hit the green with an iron that year. The hole played to an average of 4.923 strokes, by far the toughest hole of the week.

In 1966, when the hole was shortened to 443 yards, Arnold Palmer lost the last stroke of his seven-shot lead on Sunday by missing the 17th green and bogeying the hole. In '87 USGA vice president Grant Spaeth decided that the 17th had played too long and shortened it to 428 yards, but that put the landing area on a slope so severe that even drives hooked into the hill wound up in the right rough. "In retrospect, a big mistake," Spaeth says today. When the Tour Championship was held at Olympic in 1993 and '94, the pros used the tee that Roos had built and 17 was played as a par-5. The hole was the 11th hardest in '93 and the second easiest in '94.

While conceding that the 17th is a three-shot hole architecturally, Robert Sommers, author of The U.S. Open: Golf's Ultimate Test, believes that the USGA is right to turn reachable par-5s into killer par-4s. "Simply by changing par from 5 to 4 changes the attitude of the player," he says. "The number ultimately may not matter because everyone plays the same hole, but it's hard for the player to tell himself that."

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