- Farrell Evans, Golf
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Since The Players Championship moved to the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass from Sawgrass Country Club in 1982, the tournament has been largely defined by the iconic par-3 17th hole with its island green. Though it's only 137 yards, it looms as a gargantuan shadow over the other 17 holes. Through the years, the 17th, the tournament's massive purse and its star-studded international field have given the event the stature of a major championship. Depending on whom you ask, it's the fifth major.
Yet beyond the 17th hole and its two bookends -- the risk-reward of the par-5 16th and the difficult par-4 18th -- the course is largely devoid of a true identity. Beyond the 17th hole, how would you define Sawgrass?
The Masters is best known for its complex greens. Historically, the USGA has placed a premium on par by creating narrow fairways and deep rough. The British Open has its fescue and swells. The PGA Championship is the most likely place for a first-time major winner. It's U.S. Open-lite.
But The Players is the excitement and drama of the 17th hole. That's not DNA -- not like the greens at Augusta or the rough at the U.S. Open. You've never heard of a player coming to Sawgrass early to prepare for the 17th hole.
It's certainly a great venue, one of the seven or eight best in the world for championship golf, but it's difficult to find the soul of the place. Perhaps that's a good thing for the players accustomed to a standardized idea of what makes a major champion.
"Sawgrass doesn't favor a low-ball or high-ball hitter, because most of the greens open up in the front," said Craig Perks, the 2002 Players champion. "It doesn't fit any particular ball flight. You can fade and draw it. There is a premium on being a good iron player, but you can make up for it with good scrambling."
Recent winners of the Players have ranged from short hitters Fred Funk and Tim Clark to bombers Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson. Last year at The Players, K.J. Choi beat David Toms in a playoff. Both are moderate length players. In 2008, Sergio Garcia beat Paul Goydos, one of the shortest players on tour, in a playoff.
"I wish we could play something like this every week," Toms said. "I think the best players would figure out a way to play a golf course like this every week. But it would certainly be more fun for a guy that's 45 years old that doesn't hit it very far to play something like this every week; to where it brings more people into it."
The course's egalitarian setup is a gift of its designer, Pete Dye, who with the help of his wife Alice, created the famous Stadium Course on marshland.
"I think this course has shown over the years that it brings everyone together because of Pete's angles that he creates," Tiger Woods, the 2001 Players champion, said on Tuesday. "Everyone is hitting to the same spots, and we're all playing to the same areas; just what club we choose to get there to the same spots.
"Some of Pete's other golf courses are a little bit different, and this one in particular, you have to hit the ball well; and we're all playing to the same spots and then obviously to the same spots on the greens. You really can't get down there on some of the holes with big drives or anything like that. There's really no room to do that because of his angles."
Phil Mickelson, who won here in 2007, enjoys the variety of the Dye-designed course. Over the years, the recently enshrined member of the World Golf Hall of Fame has been critical of particularly the setups of Rees Jones, the renovator of several U.S. Open venues. But Mickelson has great admiration for what The Players Championship offers in the top rungs of championship golf.
"I think that what I've come to appreciate over the years is that as difficult and penalizing as it is for a mishit, missed green, missed tee shot, it's very rewarding on the greens if you're able to find them; if you're able to hit a good shot within 15, 18 feet of the hole, you're rewarded for a very good opportunity for birdie," Mickelson said.
Since 1982, a Players winner has never led the field in driving distance, but 11 times they have ranked first in greens in regulation. The old cliché of fairways and greens is an apt quotient for success on the Stadium Course. Four winners since 2000 have led the field in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation.
"I don't think that truly great courses take the driver out of your hands every single hole," Mickelson said. "But I think there's greatness in decision-making off the tee; having options to hit driver but with penalty, having options to hit less than driver, irons or hybrids, fairway woods with slight penalties, as well."
Still, despite its diversity and appeal to a broad swath of players, The Players Championship will always be defined by the 17th hole. On Tuesday, Tiger suggested that the famous hole would be better situated somewhere else on the golf course.
"I think 17 is a great hole," he said. "But not the 17th. I think it's a perfect eighth hole or something like that."
Tiger might be on to something, but as Luke Donald pointed out on Wednesday, its location is what makes it so special.
"I kind of like that it's 17," Donald said. "I think if it was anywhere sooner in the round, it wouldn't be as famous. It wouldn't mean as much, and it would not be as important."
In both 2008 and 2011, the tournament was settled in playoffs on that venerable hole. It's a cruel irony of a place so lush with choices that everything would come down to a couple of swings on a little crapshoot of a hole.
But everybody has to play it. Tiger has to play it with his tortured golf swing. Bubba Watson, the reigning Masters champion, won't have to play it because he stayed home in the Orlando area with his new baby boy and wife. But Rory McIlroy, who is making his return to the event after skipping it last year, is here to take up some of the slack.
As the No. 1 player in the world, he's one of the favorites to win this week, but no one is a real favorite at Sawgrass. In the end, its quirky but egalitarian character is its greatest virtue. By the weekend, some unheralded player will emerge from the doldrums to a comfortable place on the leaderboard. The only thing certain is that the 17th hole will give all the players hell.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at email@example.com.
1dZach Jones, ESPN Stats & Information