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The 17th at Sawgrass debate continues

The Players Championship dodged a major bullet.

The PGA Tour's showcase event was teetering on the edge of ridicule, although not for obvious reasons. It only would have looked bad if the fifth major had needed six days to find a winner.

Was it three rain delays that left players stranded in the clubhouse with nothing better to do than complain?

Weather happens. Golf should be thankful it doesn't happen more often. Besides, wholesale grumbling is heard the loudest at majors, so perhaps The Players Championship made big strides this year.

It wasn't the condition of the course or ``preferred lies'' that tarnished its stature, either.

Rain turned the TPC at Sawgrass into a sloppy mess, leaving tournament officials no choice but to allow players to lift, clean and place the ball in the fairway. That doesn't happen at any other major, and purists will argue that the ball should be played where it lies.

That was one of the original 13 rules established in 1744 when golf primarily was played on seaside links courses. What would the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers have thought about the Stadium Course at Sawgrass? Or a course with a name closer to home, like Muirfield Village?

A popular phrase last week was playing golf ``the way it was meant to be played.''

Noble, indeed, but that carried an entirely different meaning depending on who was talking. For rules officials, that meant playing the ball down. For players, it meant playing shots without globs of mud on the side of the ball.

Peter Dawson, the square-jawed secretary of the Royal & Ancient, was hardly offended to see players handing golf balls to their caddies to be scrubbed clean and gently placed in the fairway.

``On this type of course, when it gets as wet as this, you've almost got no option,'' he said. ``I think the ball should be played as it lies, as long as you can play proper golf. But with the conditions we've had, you couldn't have done that.''

Then there was that bizarre mulligan in the second round.

Thirty players began the round without being able to lift, clean and place. Once rain made preferred lies the only option, those scores were erased and the round started over. That cost players like Jesper Parnevik, Joe Ogilvie and Skip Kendall, and rescued Ernie Els.

But the most anyone had played was four holes.

That's like a bad call in the first quarter of a football game. No one remembers, and it rarely makes a difference.

What nearly cost The Players Championship major credibility was the fifth day.

It was the seventh time this tournament had to be finished on Monday, so that was nothing new. And there is a precedent on the major scene; the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont did not end until Monday because of rain.

But the wind that shooed away the storm nearly exposed the 17th hole as the gimmick it is, and showed why one hole might be the obstacle that keeps The Players Championship from being regarded as a major.

As it stands, the tournament has 17 holes of championship golf.

The other hole is a circus.

The island-green is the most notorious par 3 in golf, perhaps the most well-known among mainstream fans.

But it is not golf the way it is meant to be played.

Fred Funk chose to aim his 3-iron from 234 yards over the water and allow the wind to bring it back to land, setting up a two-putt birdie on the 16th for the outright lead. He stood over a 5-foot par putt on the 18 that gave him the biggest victory of his career.

What was the most nerve-racking moment on the final round? The 17th tee, of course.

``It can just ruin the whole week,'' Funk said.

Tiger Woods called it a made-for-TV hole, easy for him to say since it usually eats his lunch. He would have no problem if it were the eighth hole of the round, but not one second from the end.

``I don't think a hole like that should decide a tournament,'' he said.

It can decide fate long before that. Bob Tway was four shots out of the lead late in the third round Monday morning when he hit four balls into the water and made a 12, the highest score ever on that hole. Two shots hit the green and spun off into the water. He went from a tie for 10th to a tie for 72nd.

``You're playing great,'' Tway said quietly. ``All of a sudden, in one hole, you might as well be finishing last.''

What spared The Players Championship from embarrassment was that the strongest wind in tournament history blew from left to right. Had the direction been downwind or into the players' faces, it would have become a guessing game which club to use and how far to hit it.

One of these days, that will happen.

Golf is not meant to be fair. One only has to look back nine months to the U.S. Open, where the USGA outlawed sprinklers. Tee shots would not stay on the bone-dry green at the par-3 seventh at Shinnecock Hills, turning a classic course into a farce. But at least players could aim for the bunker and try to save par.

You can't play the ball as it lies when it doesn't stay on the 17th green at Sawgrass.

It is an exciting hole, a dramatic hole. The Players Championship might not be the same without it.

Majors test skill, patience and nerves. At times, they require luck.

But they should never demand it.


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