Hardest-driving closing hole: 18th, TPC Sawgrass
May 11, 2018
By Jim McCabe , PGATOUR.COM
- May 11, 2018
- Tiger Woods hits a tee shot on the 18th hole on Thursday at THE PLAYERS Championship. (Darren Carroll/Getty Images)
It is “The Godfather Part II” -- better and more substantial. Only 17 is “The Godfather,” first in line.
It has more muscle and more water. Only the 17th has more marketing manpower.
It is a Joe Louis right cross, more deliberate and punishing. But No. 17 is a Muhammad Ali jab, delivering pain in the time it takes you to draw a breath.
The 18th hole at THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass should set the standard for grueling tests. Only it can’t get top billing over its smaller, but sexier neighbor, the island-green 17th. Which is OK, because while the crowds might be 25-deep at 17 come Saturday and Sunday, the layers of fear are thicker when you stand on the tee at the 18th.
“No doubt about it,” said Brad Faxon, whose eight-win PGA TOUR career included 22 appearances in THE PLAYERS Championship. With a pair of top 10s and cuts made in 12 straight starts starting in 1994, the veteran could be deemed as having a good feel for the Stadium Course – except for when he stood at 18 tee.
“The hardest-driving golf hole I’ve ever played,” Faxon said.
He has the numbers to validate his assessment – 23 over at No. 18 for his 77 rounds – but Faxon also has plenty of esteemed company when it comes to being thrust into the confounding 462-yard closing hole. (It was a 440-yarder when this Pete Dye creation debuted in 1982.)
It all starts with an inability to get settled on the tee, said Steve Stricker, who is making his 21st appearance at THE PLAYERS. “I’ve just never been comfortable on the tee there,” he said. “It’s just one of those holes. I like to turn the ball right-to-left, but I never feel I can push it.”
That’s because the genius of Dye shines brilliantly at the 18th. He provides for a large area of fairway, but against a backdrop of an even larger expanse of water (left) and daunting trees (right). It is a fairway that bends right-to-left, so it’s understandable that players will prefer that shape of shot off the tee, but that invites the reality that your ball would be been steered in the direction of what feels like the Atlantic Ocean.
“I mean, we deal with water all the time, but at 18, it’s right on top of you,” Faxon said. “And there’s so much of it. You actually see more water than fairway, you’re at sea level with it, and it makes you uncomfortable.”
When he got to the 18th in Thursday’s first round, Adam Scott was 4 under for the eight holes he had played, but it’s not like he could have a bounce in his step. Not when he owns membership in one of the PGA TOUR’s largest fraternities – players who are off-balance at the Stadium Course’s 18th. So when Scott took aim down the right side and failed to turn it left, he watched his drive waggle aimlessly right, hit a cart path, and bounce up on a large, Bermuda-grass covered hill.
He made bogey, which slowed his momentum but was markedly better than what he had done in recent years in Round 1 at the 18th – a double in 2014, a double in ’15, a snowman in ’16, and a double last year. Now 27 over for his 59 rounds, the Aussie has stretched to 49 the numbers of rounds since he last birdied the 18th (for the record, it was Round 1 in 2004, the year he won THE PLAYERS), but Scott knows he’s not the only one to be battered by the hole.
Likewise, he knows to what he owes his troubles.
“I don’t turn the ball (right-to-left) like I did when I was younger,” Scott said. “Different swing, different technology, and it’s especially harder to turn it with a driver.”
A driver that doesn’t move left brings those trees into play (“They are the most perfectly placed trees in golf,” said Faxon) and Scott has been especially penalized by them. But if you choose to play conservatively and hit 3-wood, as Stricker often does, “I end up with 220-something (for yardage) and that’s no fun into that green.”
Indeed, the green at 18 is vintage Dye, with an assortment of grassy mounds that rarely provide a straight-forward lie if you miss the green. Also, that massive stretch of water is ever-present, so the competitor in you “tells you that you want to get it as far down the fairway as possible,” Stricker said.
With that other Florida commodity that is in greater surplus than oranges and beach sand – wind – such a factor, Stricker knows it is easier said than done. And, yes, he, too, has the numbers to substantiate his concerns; he made par in Round 1, but in his 65 rounds at the Stadium Course, Stricker is 26 over.
Just don’t blink an eye, because guess what? The 18th has been dishing out misery for 36 editions of this golf spectacular. More misery, by the numbers, than the heralded 17th. To wit, going back to the second PLAYERS in 1983 (data from 1982 is not available) and including Thursday’s first round, the double-bogeys at the 18th have outnumbered those at the 17th by a 1,107 to 1,001 margin. Ditto triple-bogeys, 260 to 251, and in six of the last 10 editions of THE PLAYERS, the 18th has ranked as the most difficult hole.
What’s more, even though more eyeballs and lots more buzz embrace the watery challenge of the island-green, between 2003 and 2017 there has been one more ball hit in the water at the 18th (704) than the 17th (703).
Keegan Bradley has contributed to that total at the 18th and he did so again Thursday, though his ball crossed the hazard well down the fairway and helped him at least salvage a bogey. It’s not a score that leads him to beat himself up. “I’d say if you play that hole even 2 over for the week, you’d take that,” said Bradley.
Hard to argue with Bradley, because of the 36 previous winners of this showcase event, 13 have prevailed despite playing the 18th over par. Even the incomparable Tiger Woods survived a roller-coaster ride at the 18th – a double, a birdie, bogey, bogey – to win in 2001 and both Fred Couples (1984) and Craig Perks (2002) have held the trophy after playing the final hole in 3 over. On just eight occasions has the winner played 18 under par, with Steve Elkington in 1991 the only champion to play it in 2 under.
Given the ferocity of the hole, there are more examples of gut-check up-and-downs to save par than birdies at the 72nd hole Sunday. Rickie Fowler in 2015 did birdie the 18th on Sunday to muscle his way into a playoff that he would win, but only three other times has the winner made a birdie in Round 4 – Elkington doing it in ’91 and ’97, Sandy Lyle accomplishing the feat in 1987.
More frequently – eight times, in fact – the winner has prevailed despite a bogey at the 18th in the final round. Scott was one of those, though his up-and-down after hitting his approach into the water, was a career-defining moment and perhaps got him into an early mindset (being just his third PLAYERS) that bogeys don’t kill you at No. 18.
“It’s just a hard, hard hole,” he said. “It doesn’t fit a driver, but 3-wood sometimes leaves you just too far back.”
When he hit it into the water in Thursday’s first round, Woods missed an opportunity to finish in red numbers. But it wasn’t a surprise and Woods proved again Friday that even the best struggle to play this hole in four shots. From the left side of the fairway, Woods was short right with his 194-yard approach and made another bogey. Thus, in 65 career rounds, Woods is now 21 over at the 18th, though he’s not at the bottom of this dubious list. No, sir. You go all the way down and can find a premier ball-striker, Corey Pavin, at 36 over and major champions Mark Brooks, Jeff Sluman and Bernhard Langer are all at 33 over.
They are the sort of numbers that fans might not appreciate, but colleagues understand. That’s because they’ve stood on that tee at 18, felt wind whipping left-to-right or right-to-left or straight in or even down off the right, as it blew Thursday, and never has a sense of calm come over them. “It’s just so hard to pick a line (off the tee) that’s the right line,” said Faxon.
Of those who’ve played more than 10 rounds at THE PLAYERS, Russell Henley rated as best at the 18th – 3 under for 16 times. He continued with that success with a par in Round 1, so naturally he was asked his secret recipe. No surprise, it was one that dated back to Old Tom.
“I just try to get it in play, just try to hit it straight,” he said.
Henley smiled, thrust out his hands, indicating that that was all there was to it.