Looking back at the first ace at 17
Brad Fabel made the first ace at 17 during THE PLAYERS, but is more well known for a run-in he had there with a seagull
May 06, 2015
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
- May 06, 2015
- Brad Fabel made four aces during his PGA TOUR career. (PGA TOUR Archives)
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Brad Fabel has no clue what he did with the Titleist ball. He may have thrown it into the gallery. He may have kept it, and now it’s buried in some drawer at home. Or maybe he just lost it. After all, it’s been 29 years, and he’s never been a big fan of keepsakes.
All Fabel remembers about the ball he used to become the first pro to conquer the 17th hole at THE PLAYERS Championship is this: “I don’t think I hit it on the next hole.”
No worries. The scorecard he turned in after the first round of the 1986 PLAYERS offered plenty of tangible proof of his historic achievement that day. So do the record books.
Six players have aced the 17th at THE PLAYERS. Brad Fabel was the first. In the scheme of things, this isn’t exactly like Hillary conquering Everest, or Magellan circumnavigating the globe. But if you consider the island green at TPC Sawgrass to be one of golf’s most iconic holes, you’d think Fabel’s achievement is worthy of some recognition, however small it may be.
To be honest, though, Fabel is more famous for what happened to him 12 years later at the same hole, when his ball found the green but was picked up by a seagull, which then proceeded to drop it in the water surrounding the green. That incident was captured on video; Fabel’s ace was not.
“Yeah, people know more about the bird,” Fabel said. “I don’t know if many people know I made a hole-in-one there.”
Fabel doesn’t push it, though. Not a big deal to him. He produced four aces in a TOUR career that spanned more than two decades, and he remembers just as much about the one he struck in 1999 during the Travelers Championship as the one at 17.
Of course, he should remember that hole-in-one at TPC River Highlands. It was an awful shot. Using a 4-iron at the eighth hole, his tee shot nearly missed the green, hitting the fringe. But then it caught a hill, and rolled 40 feet toward the pin, his ball taking a boomerang path that eventually ended up in the bottom of the cup.
Fabel couldn’t believe his good luck. Then he turned around … and his life got even better.
“They were giving away a Buick to anybody who aced the hole,” he said.
There were no car giveaways that day in 1986 as he stood on the 17th tee. It was just his second start at THE PLAYERS but he was well familiar with the hole. He was living in Ponte Vedra Beach at the time, and he and J.C. Snead and Leonard Thompson and Rocco Mediate – the other pros living in the area – would get to the course early, warm up on the range and play the back nine before the resort guests reached the turn.
He never aced the hole during those practice sessions, but he knew its nuances. During nor’easters, he’d use a 5-iron. Strong headwinds required another adjustment.
This Thursday, there was no wind, so Fabel pulled a 9-iron; he was playing TaylorMade at the time. The pin was down front, a familiar spot. Fabel struck the shot and held his breath, as he always did on the hole. His only goal was to stay dry. Nothing else mattered.
The ball hit six inches behind the hole. Before Fabel could exhale, it sucked back into the cup for the ace. “It wasn’t any slow-rolling disappearing act,” he said. For Fabel, the fact that he didn’t have to take another swing on the hole that day was more relief than joy.
“It’s always cool to have a hole in one,” Fabel said. “The fact it was on that hole, well, you’re really just so happy the ball hits land.”
At approximately the same time, Jim Gallagher was on No. 3, and his tee shot rolled into the hole for an ace. In the first four years of TPC Sawgrass hosting THE PLAYERS, no one had made an ace. Now there were two in the same round … and the same time.
Or was it?
“There was some argument about who had the first hole-in-one, period, for the tournament here,” Fabel said. “We decided not to argue about it. We decided it was simultaneous.”
The agreement holds to this day. Whenever they run into each other – which they did just last week – they still call each other by the same nickname.
Fabel would shoot 71 that day, but he stumbled to a 75 in the second round and missed the cut.
In the ensuing years, THE PLAYERS never proved very fruitful for Fabel, who missed the cut in seven of 13 career starts. Yet the island green rarely gave him trouble. In his first 24 trips to the 17th teebox, he stayed dry every time. He was a cumulative 4 under in that span, a handful of three-putts his biggest disaster on the hole. Not until his 25th tee shot at the hole did he find the water.
Seagull steals golf ball on No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass
But then came the seagull. It’s the only time in the history of the 17th that a tee shot found land … and still ended up in the water.
For the longest time, the seagull was mistakenly credited with having snatched up the ball of Steve Lowery, one of Fabel’s playing partners that day. In fact, some media outlets still reference Lowery in regards to the incident.
Fabel himself wasn’t aware of the mistaken identity until his playing career ended due to shoulder and knee injuries, and he transitioned into a rules official. During one of the rules seminars he attended, the discussion turned to Rule 18 – Ball at Rest Moved.
A video was played. The seagull incident was shown. Lowery was named as the player involved.
Another rules official in the meeting, Mickey Bradley, spoke up. That’s not Lowery’s ball, he said. It’s Fabel’s ball. Fabel then confirmed it.
The next year, the video voiceover was correctly changed.
In 2000, Fabel was finishing up the final round of THE PLAYERS when he three-putted the 17th. It would be his last time on the island green.
He lives in Nashville now, fishing and listening to old-school country music when he’s not on the road. He hasn’t been back to TPC Sawgrass in any capacity in more than eight years, not even as a rules official. He’s usually in Texas this week, advancing the first event of the North Texas two-step.
But because there’s a week in between THE PLAYERS and Texas this year, Fabel will finally return to the Stadium Course to work the event. It’s sure to evoke a few memories, especially if he finds himself at 17.
The first ace.
The seagull picking up his ball.
The days when his body obeyed his movements and he could swing without pain.
Fabel never won a PGA TOUR in 436 starts, but he still had his moments. A lot of those came when he stared across the water, looking at a pin sitting on a small green 137 yards away. His legacy on that hole may not be widely known, but history can never be erased.
So Brad, tell us the truth – you’ve missed the island green, right?
He starts to laugh.