JUST THE THOUGHT OF IT woke me up before my alarm. Outside my hotel room window, it was still black and quiet, too late for the night owls and too early for even the earliest birds. I got dressed, sneaked through the empty lobby, and stepped into the predawn air, cold enough to turn my breath into smoke.
The Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass was a walk through the chill away: up the long curving driveway, past the million-dollar motor homes of John Daly and Davis Love Ill, humming in the darkness, and toward the only light on the course, spilling from the caddie hut. I already had a couple of lucky irons, longer than I’d like to admit, and now I’d lifted a bucket of balls, too. I was ready.
I’d looked at maps and photographs; like any good burglar, I’d scouted things out. I knew I had to make my approach from behind. The easiest way, I decided, was to find the green at number eighteen and follow the rest of the hole like a bread-crumb trail–look for the grandstands, go through the tunnel under them, and from there take the path that stretches back to the eighteenth tee. Then comes a ridge of old-growth trees, a camera tower, and, up and to the right, a white beer tent. And down to the left, there it sits the Island.
The black was just starting to turn blue. Through the mist steaming off the water, the island looked bigger than I’d dreamed it would, almost welcoming. Four clipped shrubs marked the entrance to the causeway across to its shores, but there’s only one first time, and I’d made up my mind to do it right: I wouldn’t step on the island until a ball waited for me there.
A different, longer path runs back along the lake. That’s the one I tiptoed along, in front of the hill that would soon be packed with sun-drunk fans, past the drop area marked with white paint–careful to avert my eyes–and to the back of the postage-stamp-sized tee box, 140 yards from the cup. Here, in a few hours, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els and Vijay Singh would share the same vista, but for now, it was mine alone.
The dawn was really beginning to break. Sunlight leaked through the trees, burning away the mist. The black waterfall that water turned orange, then yellow, then blue, then black again. I tipped over the bucket, making worm trails in the dew, pulled a tee out of my pocket, picked up a ball, and dug it in.
I took one last look around. Everything was perfect. Not even the groundskeepers were out. There was plenty of time to swing away. I blew into my hands to warm them and lined up. A pair of nesting blue herons stirred nearby. They would be my only audience.
The greatest hole American golf was born from an alligator pit found by a southern gentleman named Vernon Kelly in the summer of 1979. Today, it’s hard to imagine anything else having taken root at seventeen; everything seems to fit, put together as neat and tidy as Main Street. The biggest hazard this side of Pebble Beach’s Pacific is vaguely rectangular and deep enough to look bottomless, even along its manicured shore. The tee box is at one end. At the other is the island green, heart-shaped and more like blue in the heat, rising a couple of feet above the water’s surface, which, nearby, is interrupted by another island–this one smaller, prettier, and perfectly round. It’s anchored by a great live oak, and during tournaments, it’s d10ressed up with pink azaleas. The herons fertilize them to death in the days afterward, however, a reminder that this place is always on the precipice of reverting to what it once was.
It was Africa-hot that summer in ’79. But Vernon Kelly had his jacket on because he’d been asked to push through the ungodly tangle of this four-hundred-acre bog in northern Florida that another man–Deane Beman, then-commissioner of the PGA Tour had bought for a dollar with the intention of turning it into a showcase for the game.
For the moment, that seemed a long way off. Waist down, Kelly was sunk in brown water; waist up, he was attacked by a thicket of sawgrass and thorns, the sort of razor wire that can skin a man. He wasn’t walking then so much as he was lunging, pushing his feet into the soggy bottom and throwing his weight against the jungle. Until all of a sudden, it gave way and he fell headlong into the open water.
Kelly struggled to find his legs. He spits out the swamp and wiped the muck from his eyes. Flies buzzed around his ears. His nose was filled with the heavy smell of rotting meat. He knew what he’d found; lucky for him, the alligator wasn’t home.
Lucky for us, this place remains what it was back then: a casino of fate. The alligator’s either home or away, and you’re either dead in the water or alive. Skill matters less here than it does just about anywhere else. What’s 140 yards for a pro? For most of them, it’s a wedge, the sort of shot they’ve made thousands of times without a thought. There’s not much sport in that. But what matters here, more than anything else, is luck. It’s a whole purpose–built for gamblers.
Every March, when the Players Championship comes around and Daly and Love and every other good player in the world roll into town, big money changes hands. Heavy with side-betting galleries–and with a million-dollar purse waiting for the tournament’s winner–seventeen becomes the world’s biggest craps pit.
The best spot along the rail is down toward the island but not behind it, where the ball is harder to follow. It’s a popular perch, though, and it can be hard to shoulder in. Lawn-chair-bound addicts will have rooted themselves in place, turning scarlet in the sun. They will sit here from Thursday morning till Sunday evening, taking in the loopiness and a few dozen hot dogs as well as a case of beer and a lifetime’s worth of vitamin D. In one lobster claw will be a starting-time sheet, golfers turned into horses; in the other will be a fistful of dollars. No action is refused. Every once in a while, one of them will puke on the path to the beer tent, and then they’ll take bets on who’s going to step in it: that woman in the red sundress or the kid eating the ice cream? The vomit pots can get big–big enough that sometimes golfers will stand on the tee waiting their turn and wonder what all the noise is about. The noise is about some woman in a red sundress stepping in puke.
Every year, of course, purists tutu at the carnival. But Deane Beman knew that tradition would carry the game only so far. For golf to succeed in egalitarian America, it needed to be opened up to the masses. It needed areas. It needed fun.
After Vernon Kelly had scouted out the alligator pit, he handed it over to Pete Dye, an architect who doesn’t design golf courses so much as he unearths them. He drew his first plan for Sawgrass on the back of a napkin; not far from Kelly’s tumble, he mapped out a traditional par 3 at seventeen, a gentle breather before his final hole’s great test.
But that corner of his napkin had grander plans for itself. Because Beman’s hog remained wet even after a mile-long canal had been built around it, the few veins of solid material that had emerged were hugely valuable. One of the best pockets of sand sat where Dye had hoped to plant his par 3; instead, it was trucked off to shore up other more important holes, and what was left behind was a pond that turned into a lake that might as well have been the ocean.
In this almost primordial place, Dye found himself stuck. One night when he was having trouble sleeping, scratching the day’s bug bites and this bigger itch, his wife, Alice–a good golfer and architect herself–suggested piling up an island somewhere in the middle of the void, if only because it might make for a nifty bit of theater. Dye dismissed the idea as something like the windmill, the old boots under the outhouse door, the miniature Eiffel Tower. He built golf courses, not amusement parks.
But like the swamp, Alice’s idea refused to submit. It disturbed his dreams when he finally fell asleep and come morning, he put in an order for enough lumber to build the bulkhead for an island. He couldn’t say why, exactly, but it turned out heart shaped.
Later, he put a bunker at the front of it, just to make things interesting. Beman loved it. This nasty psych job was just the sort of thing golf needed to turn spectators into fans. The view helped. The guaranteed fireworks didn’t hurt.
The course immediately became the permanent home of the Players Championship. Almost as immediately, those players expressed their hatred for the island. They hated the island because it pushed them over some invisible line between the two halves of their collective brain, lifting them out of the safety of their subconscious. In other words, it made them think. And then it opened a space between thinking and doing and filled it with 140 yards of wind-whipped alligator pit.
“You never think you’re gonna make a 7 on that damn hole,” Fred Funk said last year, shortly after making a 7. “It’s a big target. There’s no reason you should hit it into the stupid water. It’s just a mental thing. Even though you try not to think about it, you know it’s coming, and you seem to really pucker up when you get there.”