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No. 17 offers short course in treachery

The shot seems simple enough, a short iron to a huge green. But as anyone who has played the 17th at the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course will tell you, there is nothing easy about one of golf's most famous holes.

For two decades the game's version of water torture has confounded participants in the Players Championship and delighted those watching across the lake from the par 3's island green.

There's nothing quite like seeing the best golfers suffer a bit, if for no other reason than to feel better about one's own inadequacies.

"It's definitely a hole you're thinking about, it's in the back of your head all day long," said Mark Calcavecchia, who shot 3-under-par 69 Thursday in the rain-delayed first round and avoided the water at 17. "It's like having a 3 o'clock appointment for a root canal. Thinking about it all morning and you feel (bad) all day. You kind of know sooner or later you've got to get to it.

"You just walk around there and you look at it and you just tell yourself: Commit to a club, pick a shot, and hit it."

Easier said than done, and Thursday was proof. The 17th was the second-hardest hole of the uncompleted round, averaging 3.348 strokes. There were 23 balls in the water, including two from Duffy Waldorf, who made 7.

A 2{-hour morning rain delay kept 74 players from completing the first round. They'll continue the first round at 7:50 this morning, with the second round scheduled for 8:50.

Chris DiMarco (13 holes), Scott Hoch (12) and Phil Mickelson (11) led at 5 under. David Gossett, Nick Faldo, Jerry Kelly and Steve Stricker were 4 under with holes remaining. Six players completed their rounds at 3-under 69, including Stuart Appleby, who hit into the water at the 17th and made double bogey. Defending champion Tiger Woods was 1-under through 14 holes and made par at 17.

"There's a lot going on on that hole," said Appleby, who would have tied for the lead without the mistake. "This course is going to bite you somewhere."

The hole played easier as the conditions improved, with 16 of the first 60 players hitting into the water.

Although the distance is not long and the green is 4,000 square feet, there is nowhere to miss other than a tiny bunker. Factor in wind conditions, a hard green and tournament pressure, and all of a sudden it's like playing to a garbage can cover.

The hole was 137 yards Thursday, and it usually plays no more than an 8-iron for the pros. For resort guests it plays shorter, but that doesn't keep them from depositing ball after ball into the drink.

Course superintendent Fred Klauk estimates about 120,000 balls are pulled from the lake each year. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem told the story of a foursome that ran out of balls, coaxed a ranger into going back to the pro shop to buy a few more dozen and finally gave up when all those were wet.

"All my friends at home ask me what is the hardest shot on tour," said DiMarco, a former Florida Gator who didn't make it to the hole in the first round. "There's no doubt 17 is the hardest shot on tour, or at least the most nerve-racking shot I play all year."

Over the years the hole has caused its share of misery. In 1991 Phil Blackmar took the lead with birdie at 16, hit his tee shot into the water on No. 17 and lost to Steve Elkington by two strokes. In 1998 Len Mattiace stepped onto the tee, hit two balls in the water, made 8 and finished in a tie for fifth.

Then there's Paul Azinger. He remembers playing the hole in the ultimate test, the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament in 1983. In the second-to-last round he made 7, hitting the first two balls in the water. "My hand was shaking when I pegged that third one in the ground," he said.

The next day Azinger birdied the hole and earned his tour card by one stroke. He is one of five players in tournament history to ace it.

"Until you actually play it under conditions when your livelihood is at stake, it's not that intimidating," Jeff Sluman said. "But Thursday through Sunday your belly is jumping a little bit and you just understand that your name is on your bag, and there's a reason you've just got to step up and hit the shot. And sometimes even then you're going to hit balls in the water."