By Ryan Smithson, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- When it comes to dishing out punishment at TPC Sawgrass, the 14th might feel a little cheated.
It lacks the finality of the watery 18th. It doesn't have the Instagram quality of the par-3 17th. And yet, the 14th often decides the winner -- or loser -- of THE PLAYERS Championship.
Ask around. The longest, toughest par-4 on the property? It's not the 462-yard 18th, which will be shown on NBC dozens of times a day this weekend. The endless, windy, sand-strewn 14th -- which can be stretched to 488 yards -- always puts a contender through the wringer before that player even sets foot on the final three-hole stretch.
The fairway seems wide enough, but it's a mirage. At first glance, it's 60 yards wide, but only about 20 yards are viable. Any blocked drive will find some of the deepest rough on the course. Even worse, the rough is joined by tall mounds. It's not unheard of for the best players in the world to hit a driver over the mounds and down the hill near the 12th tee.
That's what happened to Tiger Woods on the 14th on Thursday. Through two rounds, Woods was nearly mistake-free, but struggled on the 14th. He saved par from the rough on Thursday, and on Friday, he missed the narrow green for the second day in a row. Bogey. Through two rounds of the THE PLAYERS this year, the 14th is the hardest green on the course to hit in two shots. Only 44 percent of the players have stood over a birdie putt.
In 2012, the 14th -- not the 18th -- was the toughest hole on the course. It averaged 4.35 strokes, giving up just 35 birdies all week, and only six of them came after missing the fairway. Only two birdies were made from the right rough, even with a better attack angle. This week, Martin Flores blasted his tee shot 361 yards into the right rough -- and still made bogey.
It's not always brutal: In 2007, when the hole played downwind all week, the hole was only the eighth-toughest, with even medium hitters hitting short irons for the approach.
But hitting a 9-iron in is a rare luxury, even without much wind. TPC Sawgrass doesn't require a lot of drivers, but the 14th is an exception. On the long 18th, many players will hit a draw with a 3-wood that can roll out 280 yards. With the 14th often playing into the wind (and slightly uphill) that isn't as much of an option.
It's the hole that cost Vijay Singh his best shot at THE PLAYERS. In 2001, Singh duck-hooked his drive into the water on the left and ended up losing by one. Days after that bitter defeat, Singh returned to the tee -- he lives nearby -- and hit dozens of balls. None of them went into the water.
Even with a perfect drive, the approach can be just as tough as the watery 18th. In 2008, Paul Goydos held the lead on the final day. He was five holes away from the biggest win in his career, and after a perfect drive at No. 14, he pulled a 5-iron. The pin was in its Sunday location on the back, and Goydos hit it just a tad too hard. The ball hit near the pin and bounced over. Goydos was short-sided, and he made bogey. He eventually lost in a playoff to Sergio Garcia ... who was one of the few to birdie the 14th.
The hole nearly wrecked Matt Kuchar's easy ride to victory in 2012. Like Singh, Kuchar had played the hole hundreds of times, and he desperately wanted to avoid the rough on the right side. He overcooked his drive, sending it into the thin, runway-like fairway bunker that hasn't changed much since Pete Dye laid out the course in the late 1970s.
The bunker is very similar to the ones that run along the fifth, seventh and 15th holes. But the bunker on the 14th is unique -- the path to the green is also blocked by trees.
Kuchar had a choice. He could chip out and play for bogey, but he instead elected to try to gas a 5-iron over the trees to the green. Amazingly, it worked. Kuchar's flat swing clipped the ball cleanly off the sand, and Kuchar was left with an easy par.
"It was a shot I knew I had to pull off or else it was going to be a big number," Kuchar said. "It was one of those shots (that) if it didn't come out right, it was in the trees, in the waste. It was going to be a big number. Fortunately, I was hitting the ball well enough and I had enough confidence that I was going to go for the shot.
"There was no layup considered. It came off well, and it's probably the shot that won the tournament for me."
But Kuchar knows he's the exception rather than the rule. More often than not, a missed tee shot on the 14th is an automatic bogey, and that is what the leaders will be staring down on Sunday at TPC Sawgrass.