Rock has Katayama's ball, and that's huge. It's Friday afternoon at the Players Championship, and the number of fans occupying vantage points overlooking the 4,500-square-foot island that is the 17th green at the TPC at Sawgrass has grown to about 7,000. As usual, and with a little help from a swirling wind, the 17th is eating scorecards. Thirty-one players hit into the water on Day One, another 19 will splash down today, and a total of 72 will suffer the same fate as Luca Brasi before Craig Perks is crowned champion on Sunday evening. As if to prove that the 137-yard hole isn't that hard, though, Miguel Angel Jimenez stopped by on Thursday morning and dealt an ace. That's what makes 17 the most exciting par-3 on Tour. The line between in the hole and in the drink is thinner than Charles Howell, and either way it's going to be exciting. If the tee-shot drama isn't compelling enough, there's always a chance that someone will drop a 60-foot double-breaking, uppercut-inducing birdie putt. (See Woods, Tiger, 2001.) Then there's this: From the hillside at 17, spectators can also watch the action on the 16th green and the 18th tee and fairway—a luxury-box-like view of a brutal closing stretch over which, more times than not, the tournament is decided.
The 17th is the place where fans can see millionaires throw things in disgust, couples get engaged, rednecks, frat boys and corporate execs booze like brothers, more side-betting than at a cockfight and some amazing golf shots. That brings us back to Rock.
A 21-year-old technical rep for Adams Golf, Rock played professionally for a while, on the Dakotas tour, before returning home to Jacksonville. Tall, thin and animated, he has the face of a teenager, unlined and dotted with light freckles across the nose. He talks loudly and pushes his face forward to emphasize key words: "Dude (push), I would totally (push) love (push) to play in front of a crowd like this. I would pump (push) this crowd (push) up (push)."
At about 9:30 a.m., Rock and his crew of four plop down on the little strip of land that extends out to the green. They are suspiciously overloaded with bottles of Coke, which they pour into clear plastic cups. Before long Rock's older brother, Tim, opens his shirt and flashes a plump bladder. " Jim Beam," he says. "Golf is secondary."
"That's right," says another member of the crew, Evan. "Some people come for the birdies, we come for the beauties." As the Jim Beam disappears and the Bud Lights from the concession stand on 18 take their place, Rock, Tim, Evan & Co. become particularly adept at "encouraging" players as they walk past and onto the green. When the excitable, Stetson-wearing Japanese bantamweight, Shingo Katayama, sticks one close, "we give him a lot of love on the way past," Rock says. Minutes later Katayama is juiced after making birdie, and as he walks off, Rock shouts, "Way to go cowboy, nice shot." Katayama pumps a fist and flips his shiny white Srixon ball, complete with Japanese marking, right into Rock's hands. This fires up Rock, who takes to periodically yelling, "I've got Katayama's ball (push) in my pocket, and that's huge (push)."
For every Rock, there's a Barbara Linehan, an 87-year-old grandmother who leaves her house in Jacksonville Beach at 5 a.m. so she can get a prime spot along the ropes. She's a so-called roper. A smiling woman with curly white hair puffing up through an autograph-covered visor, Linehan has come to the tournament every year since moving to Florida from Plymouth, Mass., in 1995. This year her week-long pass was a Christmas gift from her daughter, Priscilla Corbett, who sits next to her. "I told Priscilla I didn't want anything for Christmas. I didn't need anything," Linehan says. "Then I opened the envelope and almost died." She was thrilled to have had her picture taken with Vijay Singh during a practice round. Linehan says she gravitates toward 17 for her own reason: "It's a great spot because it's a very exciting shot, but I like it because the sun helps keep you warm here."
As the afternoon wears on, the crowd grows thicker, and the action on the green picks up. For the second day in a row Stuart Appleby comes to the tee with at least a share of the lead only to hit into the water. This time he slams his club across his leg. Later, Rich Beem, David Frost and Padraig Harrington make crowd-stirring birdies, while Fred Couples puts one in the drink on the way to a double bogey, evoking pained groans from the fans.
The action around the hole is intense too. Throughout the crowd fevered knots of fans holding folded pairing sheets can be seen haggling, repeating the phrase, "Who you got?" They're playing Closest to the Pin. For a buck, pick a player. Pay double if your guy hits in the water; win double if your guy makes a birdie. "There's no betting at Bushwood, and I never slice," says Kevin Coyne when asked about the game he and his buddies are playing. In a baseball cap, wraparound shades, wind vest and pleated shorts. Coyne looks as if he raided a club pro's closet. Once he drops the Judge Smails act, Coyne concedes that 17 is a terrific spot to pick up some extra cash. "This is the place," he says.
Farther down the hill three women in their 20s mill around drinking beer from cups. Rene, a tall blonde, and Randii and Tammy, shorter brunettes, have the kind of deep tans that look as if they emanate from within. Tammy admits that the tournament is mostly a social event for them—"Golf? Who's playing?" she says—but is willing to talk as long as "no one makes us look stupid." Her favorite player? " Robert Duvall."
Rene quickly corrects her. " David Duval. DD, local boy." Duval is approaching 16 at that very moment, and the crowd around the already packed 17th—swollen by the recent passage of Tiger Woods's group-starts to grow even more in anticipation of his arrival. By this time almost any semblance of golf etiquette has disappeared. Many of the people walking around socializing are oblivious to the golfers teeing off or putting. A peroxide blonde with a Jayne Mansfield figure and a flimsy T-shirt walks back and forth from tee to green three times, drawing stares from the multitude. The air hums with a constant buzz of conversation, making the 17th something like playing through a Bennigan's at happy hour.