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WATER TORTURE

Golfers are drawn to disaster, somehow believing they can avoid all the accidents that have preceded them. That is why players of every level enjoy the risk at one of the most famous holes in golf.

It is barely 130 yards _ often less for resort guests who play the course _ but the 17th hole at the TPC-Sawgrass Stadium Course is among the most feared anywhere. It also is one of the most enjoyed.

"We're not far from the Interstate (I-95), and people come all the time and just want to see the hole," said Pete Davison, the first head golf professional at the course. "It's like somebody wanting to see Niagara Falls. It's a tourist attraction."

Tell that to the PGA Tour players who must get past that hole during The Players Championship, which begins today.

Even to accomplished tournament golfers, the sight of a green surrounded by water _ with no place other than the putting surface and a tiny bunker to land the ball _ can be extremely intimidating.

Many times, they are using just a wedge or a 9-iron. But depending on the wind, they might need as much as a 5-iron. With severe crosswinds, doubt becomes more prevalent.

"Bloody 17th hole," Nick Faldo said. "We all know about 17. I am not a fan of that one because you can hit a knockdown shot and miss the green long. You can hit a very good shot, and it takes one hop and it goes into the drink over the back."

"You've got to stand up there and hit a golf shot," Payne Stewart said. "You've got to hit a shot with the right yardage, that is not easy when the wind is into you and crossing. That makes it a pretty difficult little shot. You better hit it solid, and you better have the right club."

There have been difficult days on the hole over the years. In 1995, Faldo, Mark O'Meara, Ian Baker-Finch, Mike Heinen and David Duval each hit two balls in the water at 17. In all, 41 balls found the water that day. During the first round of the 1984 tournament, 64 balls got wet.

But that's nothing compared with the annual haul of golf balls to come out of the pond.

According to Davison, vice president and director of operations for PGA Tour Golf Course Properties, balls are retrieved by divers from the 17th once a month. And they come up with about 120,000 a year.

With 40,000 rounds being played on the course per year, that's an average of three balls per player being dumped in the water at 17.

"You'll see people up there hitting one after another," Davison said. "We have a local rule that allows you to hit from a drop zone. But it's still hard to hit that green from 50 yards. No kidding, they'll get to hitting one after another into the water."

The hole was not intended to be an island green. According to Vernon Kelly, the project manager for the course when it was being built, course architect Pete Dye had the hole running alongside a lake, with water only on the right side.

But because so much sand was needed from the lake to build up other parts of the course, Dye kept digging. And he got to thinking, "Why not make the 17th something special?"

"He decided to make it unique and not have a bail-out area," said Kelly, now president of PGA Tour Golf Course properties. "In the wind, it can really be intimidating. At the time, the question was how intimidated would the pros be at such a short hole. It's an easy shot for them.

"But sure enough at the TPC, when the wind was blowing, the PGA Tour members look at it the same way amateurs do: all that water and no place for a mistake."

The fright factor might still exist, but PGA Tour players have come to deal with the pain. The hole ranks only ninth in difficulty among the 18 holes on the course during the tournament's history at the Stadium Course, averaging 3.091 strokes.

Last year, the hole played under par, with an average of 2.921 strokes. It was the fifth-easiest hole on the course.

"If you execute an above-average shot, you will usually get good results," said defending champion Fred Couples, who birdied the hole during last year's final round on the way to 64. "There's potential for really high numbers if you hit it in the water, but if you hit the green, you'll par it more often then not."

Easier said than done.

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