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TPC Sawgrass #17 – Curse of The Island Green at the Players Championship

You are blindfolded, led to the tee, and are told the pin is 137 yards away with a slight breeze coming in from the left. You would ask for your 9 iron and decide to aim at a spot 5 yards left of the hole for a straight shot that drifts to the hole… not much to it, right? You think this has to be one of the easier shots on any Championship level course. "I'm ready, take the blindfold off!" you say… and then look up to the hole.

All of a sudden, your calm 80 beat pulse immediately races to 120 beats per minute. Perspiration starts forming around your ears and neck and hands. You think, "Is the 9 iron enough? Will the wind push it down more or will it carry?" Then the totally irrational thoughts seep in… "Wait, is this tee box perfectly straight? It seems tilted to favor a fade… should I compensate for this?" And maybe a "Is that green firmer and harder in the middle than the last green I played? Maybe I should go with a hard pitching wedge?"

For the casual observer watching the Players Championship on the famed Stadium Course, these thoughts may seem ludicrous and unreal. However, to any serious or avid golfer out there, these distractions are anything but a dream. This is where the flagship description of golf's being a mental game before a physical one becomes a horrid reality.

The facts are, although the size of this green is slightly smaller than the average tour par 3 green, the distance is far shorter. In fact, if #17 were not surrounded by water on an "island," the tour average there would easily be under 3.00 strokes. But reality states the average is above 3.00. If you told any tour pro he has a 137 yard tee shot but you bet him the average is over 3.00 strokes, he would think you are lying or there is some gimmick to the hole. Actually, there are many who think #17 is a gimmick and a horrible hole.

Golf is a game of discipline, strategy, and then physical execution. Any one of these components can ruin a shot, but all are needed to create a great one. So how do you maximize your chances of hitting a great shot, or a shot to the best of your abilities, rather than hitting one and then going off on the "Shoulda-woulda-couldas?"

Just like most pros do for putting and how Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods do for hitting shots, creating an intermediate spot to aim at between the final target and your ball is crucial. If adversity such as the water makes you nervous, picking this spot not only allows you to align yourself perfectly, but you can actually hit the shot without even looking at the hole after setup. This eliminates any last second doubts and makes you work on the shot execution rather than things you cannot control. Here is an example of a no-frills pre-shot routine and execution for you to try next time you need to hit a tough tee shot or approach.

  1. Get the yardage to the hole or location you need to land the ball
  2. Adjust the number for wind and other elements like elevation, air conditions, adrenaline, etc…
  3. With that distance, match it with your starting line
  4. Select the appropriate club and tee the ball up according to the shot you will hit
  5. Stand back behind the ball a couple of yards, see your target line, and then select a spot between your ball and that target line, ideally about 5-10 feet in front of your ball. You will need to experiment with this range to see what works best for you.
  6. While staring at that spot and your ball only, line up your feet to that line, and settle into your stance
  7. At this point, you may or may not look back up to your final target. There are 3 options here for you to take:
  • Look up to the hole or target, review in your head where the ball is going, and see all the danger around the target that may cause you to think about other options or second guess your strategy. For those lacking mental toughness, this is the worst option.
  • Vacillate your eyes between the ball and the spot you chose, trust your strategy, initiate your swing and execute. This can work if you have the ultimate belief in this pre-shot routine, practice on the range, and try it through many rounds. However, many people think this is disconcerting when you cannot see your final target before the swing. Keep in mind, there is 0% chance that the target has moved. The only possible error here will be the fact that you may have not picked an accurate spot to align yourself for the shot.
  • This final option allows the best of both worlds and is my personal favorite. Much like the last tip, you vacillate your eyes between the spot and the ball, but once or twice, you quickly glance at the hole or target in between the vacillations. Although this is not necessary as aforementioned, this calms the mind in confirming the fact that the island has not floated away and is still in line. As long as you do not glance at the target for more than several milliseconds, the brain will simply use the recorded image of the target and not allow the cognitive portion to further analyze it.

In the end you should practice and try all these techniques on the range and the course, and see what works the best for you under pressure, when you have $100 from 4 carryovers and double or nothing riding on #18, etc…. Having a specific technique and game plan will accelerate your process to better shot making in the harshest of conditions.