The Meanest Day at 17
Nasty wind conditions made the island green nearly impossible to reach during the first round of the 1984 PLAYERS
March 11, 2019
By Adam Schupak, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- As champion of the THE PLAYERS Championship in 1988, Mark McCumber lived his dream of winning his hometown event. But he also experienced two recurring dreams about the 17th hole at THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass that gave him the night sweats. McCumber remembers waking up after having a nightmare that 12 groups piled up on the tee and watched as he failed to find land at the island green.
If ever there were a day where that scenario could've happened, it may have been during the tournament's first round in 1984 when Mother Nature wreaked havoc and hurled 45-mile-per-hour gusts out of the northwest.
"That's one of the worst days I ever remember," McCumber said.
Statistically, it was the worst single day in the history of the iconic hole. The stroke average of 3.853 is the highest at 17 in any single round at THE PLAYERS since the tournament moved to the Stadium Course. The closest since then came in the final round in 2005, when the 17th’s stroke average was 3.780.
The fickle Florida wind made club selection challenging. Players used anything from 5-iron to 9-irons on the hole, which measured 132 yards. McCumber, a Jacksonville native, celebrated his eagle at 16 until he realized that meant he had the honor at the next tee.
With the wind howling, McCumber called the 17th the most intimidating hole he'd ever played. He overcame his fears, striking an 8-iron 20 feet from the flag and was overjoyed to escape with par.
But his fellow competitors weren't as fortunate. David Graham, who took 7-iron, launched what McCumber termed "a flawless, perfect shot," until it caught a gust and flew over the green without ever touching land. Moments later, Ben Crenshaw, the third competitor in the group, ballooned his ball in the air and made the walk of shame to the drop zone when it dropped short of the green.
"The day is coming when somebody will run out of balls on No. 17 and have to walk off the course," Crenshaw said at the time.
All told, 64 balls rinsed in the water. That 3.853 stroke average remains the highest ever recorded for a par 3 of less than 150 yards on TOUR. “It’s the easiest par 5 on the course,” joked John Mahaffey.
The carnage did not surprise course architect Pete Dye, who credits wife Alice with designing the island hole, as the Indianapolis resident once compared the blood sport of watching Thursday's 64-ball pile up at 17 to a fan watching the Indy 500. “He likes to see good racing but secretly he’s looking for a crash, too," Dye said. "And the guy at 17 is waiting for that crash, waiting for some star to dump his tee shot into the water."
As the mayhem at 17 mounted, World Golf Hall of Fame writer Dan Jenkins strolled out to the hole and joined a large gallery perched like vultures on the spectator mounds lining the left side of the hole.
"I watched a good bit of the 'Double-Bogey Storm' and giggled," Jenkins said recently, just weeks before his death on March 7 at age 89. "I mainly recall Tom Watson's first words at his interview: 'I feel like I've been in a war.' "
Before recounting the tales of woe, it should be pointed out that not every player in the field experienced heartache. Johnny Miller determined the best plan of attack against the wind was spitting into it.
"That left-to-right wind was great for me and probably bad for a lot of players who like to fade the ball," said Miller, who made one of the 11 birdies recorded on No. 17 that day. "I was able to hit my normal draw right at the flag because the wind stopped it. But if you wanted to play a fade and didn't aim it to the left of the green, it was all over for you."
Miller, who became the lead analyst for NBC's coverage of THE PLAYERS for more than two decades until retiring earlier this year, called 17 the greatest short par 3 in the world. "Man, it just haunts you," Miller said.
There may be no better mixture of terror, excitement and pressure than a hole with nowhere to bail out. The total score to par at No. 17 during the first round in 1984 of 122 over marked its highest score to par in any round at TPC Sawgrass.
"You get a real sick feeling inside," Mark Lye told local reporters that day of standing on the tee. "It's hard to make yourself take the club back to hit the ball."
The litany of the lost was long, with 37 players, or just more than half of the morning wave of 72, leaving a souvenir at the bottom of the lake when the wind was its most unpredictable. Six players made seven. Ronnie Black bested them all, carding an eight, one of 49 scores of double bogey or worse on the day -- which is 14 more than the next highest aggregate of 35 coming in 2007.
Of the 117 players in the history of THE PLAYERS who have made suffered quadruple bogey or worse at the island green, seven happened on that Thursday.
"Swirling Atlantic gusts snatched balls in mid-flight and tossed them around like trailer homes in a tornado," wrote Pete Foley in the Jacksonville Journal.
Mahaffey said it was the windiest conditions he'd played in during his 14-year TOUR career. Just how hard was it blowing? Hal Sutton, who had a rollercoaster round of 71 that included seven birdies, summed it up best to The Florida Times-Union: "On some putts, I had to lean so hard into the wind that if the wind had stopped blowing, I probably would have fallen over."
A total of 52 balls for four rounds had been hit into the water at 17 in 1983, the second year that the course had hosted THE PLAYERS. By 4:30 p.m. that Thursday, that figure had been matched in a single day when Andy North dunked one, and then broken moments later when his second attempt splashed, too.
North had a lot more company in his misery than Miller did in his bliss, shooting 81, one of 26 players who failed to break 80 on the opening day. Eventual champion Fred Couples made par on the 17th in the first round, gaining nearly a stroke compared to the rest of the field.
As for McCumber's other dream about the treacherous 17th?
"One time," he said, "I walked up to the green and saw a white film because the lake had filled up with golf balls."
Lake Balata nearly overflowed with water-logged souvenirs on opening day 35 years ago. It remains a record for futility and still is remembered, for better or worse, as the day a fierce wind turned the 17th into the world's largest ball washer.