Sawgrass' 17th plays starring attraction

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Tiger Woods withdrew after nine holes. World No. 1 Lee Westwood and No. 6 Rory McIlroy didn't even bother to stop by. Phil Mickelson is already eight shots out of the lead.

Doesn't matter.

That's because the star of the Players Championship isn't a player; it's a 4,088-square-foot patch of agony stuck in the middle of a lagoon. The PGA Tour ought to arrange an autograph session for it. Give it its own space in the clubhouse parking lot.

The 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass wins here every year. It giveth. It taketh. It scareth.

"Phenomenal hole," Pat Perez said. "There's zero wrong with that hole."

There isn't a shorter hole on the course than No. 17. From tee box to flagstick, it measured just 146 yards during Friday's round. On Thursday it was 141. Par-3 target practice, right?

So why, then, did Edoardo Molinari come to the 17th hole at 1-over, right at the edge of the cut line, and leave there at 6-over?

Why did the rest of his threesome (Alex Cejka and Paul Goydos) do the "Little Mermaid" thing and also find the water?

Why do fans and blimps always make a beeline for the smallest piece of real estate on the course?

Because you can't measure fear by yards. The shortest hole here is also the most terrifying. It puts hair on your chest. It is the leading cause of sweat stains.

List the most recognizable holes in the world. You've got No. 12 at Augusta National, No. 7 and No. 18 at Pebble Beach, No. 17 and No. 18 at St. Andrews, and No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass.

The island green at TPC gets more TV time than Anderson Cooper. It should have its own makeup artist. The camera loves it.

Makes sense. It comes near the end of the round, just before the even-more-unforgiving, par-4 18th hole. It draws crowds the size of a Lady Gaga concert. It's the biggest water attraction since Wet 'n Wild.

"I still don't know what to think of it," Anthony Kim said. "It's not a tough shot. But when the wind blows and the greens get firm, it gets tough -- especially with the pressure if you're in contention. I'm sure the green gets smaller."

I walked up to the tee box moments before Cejka, Molinari and Goydos arrived. Cejka, 2-over at the time, pulled a 9-iron from his bag.

"Ooohhhhhhhh," the crowd said as Cejka's shot hit the green and dove over the railroad ties and into the water.

Molinari used a 9-iron to do the same thing. More "Ooohhhhhs."

Goydos, only three shots behind leader David Toms at the time, pulled an 8-iron -- and watched as the ball took an afternoon bath. Figures. After all, this is the same hole that cost Goydos the tournament in 2008, when he lost to Sergio Garcia in a playoff.

By the time they finished, Cejka, Molinari and Goydos were a combined 10-over on the hole. That's a hangman for Cejka (7), a snowman dance for Molinari (8) and a Joe DiMaggio for Goydos (5).

Standing next to the tee box was NBC/Golf Channel spotter Jeff Young. Young has charted every shot hit at No. 17 during the Players Championship since 2003. The only guy who knows the hole better than Young is its architect, Pete Dye.

"The wind," Young said. "Always watch the wind."

Young pointed toward a huge TV camera crane located in the distance just right of the hole sightline. An American flag flew at its top.

"That's what the players look at, that flag," he said. "But it's swirling, always changing."

I ask him to guess which player since 2003 has the longest active streak without dunking a ball in the water on No. 17?

"I'd say Kenny Perry," he said.

Not even close. Robert Allenby and Scott Verplank share the lead with 30.

Of course, I made the mistake of mentioning the streak to Allenby. Memo to me: Don't do that. For a moment there, I thought the Aussie was going to demonstrate Australian rules football on my jaw.

"Thanks," he said sarcastically. "Sheesh. I hope I keep it going now. Thanks. If I hit it in the water, I'm looking for you."

He didn't. He parred it Thursday. Birdied it Friday.

"It has a lot of character," Allenby said. "It's tough a hole. It shouldn't be that tough. But it's surrounded by water. When the wind blows, it gets tricky. When the flags are at the top, you have to land it at a certain position. And if you're 5 yards off, you're in the water."

His secret?

"All I ever do is just get the club, commit to my shot, and stand out there and hit it," said Allenby, who, if it were up to him, would have moved the hole to the middle of the round. "I don't waste any time. ... Once you have any doubt in your mind, you're screwed."

If Bob Tway were here, he'd tell you all about it. He made a 12 at No. 17 in 2005, dropping from a T-10 to a T-72. No player since 2003 has hit more balls in the water (nine) on the hole than Tway. Aaron Baddeley, who is here, is tied with Heath Slocum with eight in the lagoon.

"Middle of the green is a good spot there," Baddeley said.

Are you kidding? Any place dry is a good spot there.

By the way, Young has played No. 17 three times.

"Two I put on the green," he said. "One I put in the water."

Molinari will be thrilled.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.