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There isn't a better closing stretch in tournament golf than 16, 17 and 18 at Sawgrass. You can see players finish 3-2-4 or 6-6-6. The Players is definitely not over until the champion has it on dry land at the 17th, no matter how big his lead is. On a windy day it's like the PGA Tour's old slogan—anything's possible.
The 17th hole is fun to talk about, but it's nowhere near the hole that gets me the most puckered. The hardest hole for me is number 1. It's only 392 yards, and if you hit a good tee shot you have a short iron to a tough green. The problem is, I can't see the fairway. I know it's out there somewhere, but I have a hard time finding it. On the 1st tee I feel like Indiana Jones looking for a lost relic.
The tee shot on number 6 is the scariest shot on the course. You have to hit underneath a tree limb. You feel as if you're teeing off through a tunnel. The next shot isn't much fun, either. There's a big tree on the right side that seems to be in your way no matter where you drive it. I'm pretty sure somebody moves that thing around.
The finish on the front nine is stronger than dirt. The 7th is a tough driving hole; the 8th is a billion-yard par-3; and the 9th is a par-5 that only a few guys can reach in two. That's why I like this course for the Goydos and Jim Furyk types, guys who aren't big hitters.
This Old House
I don't remember the old clubhouse very well, even though it has only been five years since they bulldozed it. You went up a stairway to the back door, there was a crow's nest and an area for player dining. What I do remember is that back in the day, the Players was the only nonmajor televised on Thursday and Friday. You could sit in the locker room before your afternoon tee time and see what clubs other guys were hitting on 17. Now you do that at every tournament.
The new clubhouse is big [77,000 square feet] and grandiose, which NBC reminds you of every time they show it from the blimp. You can definitely get lost inside. To get from the locker room to the caddie area on your way to the practice range, you have to walk through a subterranean maze. It's like the hallway from the opening credits for Get Smart, minus the big doors slamming shut. That hallway is called the Walk of Champions because there are paintings of all the winners of the Players. I occasionally think about how close I came to having my own painting. At Bay Hill you get your own banner for winning. They hang them on signposts along the entrance road to the course. I look for mine every year. It's a nice reminder.
One of my great Players moments came on a Friday when the tournament was still in March. I was paired with Kevin Sutherland and sniped one into the trees on the 2nd hole. There was some pampas grass on my follow-through. I swung my six-iron; it plowed into the grass. I looked down, and the shaft was bent. Wow. At number 10 I blocked a drive way right. It was a six-iron shot, but now I didn't have a six-iron. So I hit a five-iron. I looked down—the shaft was bent. So now I was without a five- or a six-iron. Great. I was hanging around the cut line. At 16 I drove it into the first pond off the tee. How many pros have done that? Even the World's Worst Avid Golfer hit it over that pond, I guarantee it. I pull-hooked a drive, it hit a tree and went backward 50 yards into the water. I made bogey and now needed two pars to make the cut. I got the first one at 17. At 18 I didn't want to leave myself a five- or a six-iron approach, obviously, so I hit three-wood off the tee. Except I accidentally lace-hooked it around the corner. I was between clubs—exactly between a five and a six. Unbelievable. Well, I was never going to get there with a seven-iron, so it had to be a four. I moved the ball back in my stance, pretended there was a tree in front of me and flew the ball about 120 yards. While the ball was in the air, I heard Kevin say, "What the hell are you doing?" I told him, "I'm out of clubs." The ball rolled the last 50 yards and stopped eight feet from the cup. I two-putted and made the cut on the number.