Last week, we took a deep statistical dive that asked a simple question: How hard is the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass, really? The “island green” is an entity that comes with its fair share of menace, but is the reputation earned? What we found is that yes, it’s about as tough as they come in the subset of shorter par 3s, and that conclusion came with a lot of interesting data.
As part of the numbers mining that led to that discovery, we were also able to pinpoint the greatest single-hole disasters in the history of the island hole—blunders that cost players a chance to win one of golf’s signature events.
Today, we’d like to present a countdown of the most dramatic final-round reversals of fortune directly connected to the havoc caused by the 17th. To measure this, we used “win probability,” or, more accurately, the change in win probability from before a golfer stepped on the tee on 17 to after he walked off the island green. In simpler terms, who blew the biggest chance for victory by dunking a shot in the water?
Without getting too deeply into the statistical weeds, we were able to calculate win probability using the leader board at a specific moment in the tournament, and simulating the conclusion 5,000 times based on player skill, hole difficulty and etc. The ranking below represents those players who had the widest swing in win probability based entirely on the 17th hole.
We’ll take you now through the top six nightmares—the most accursed victims of the island.
6. Len Mattiace, 1998: 25 percent to 0
You can see Mattiace’s first water shot here, but the video doesn’t quite tell the story, because after his next attempt found the bunker, he went from sand to water, wet again. He had been just a single shot off the lead at 10 under heading into the hole, but after making a quintuple-bogey 8, his chances went from “decent” to “no way in hell.” To that point, Mattiace had never won a PGA Tour event, but would remedy that in 2002 with a pair of wins.
5. Phil Blackmar, 1991: 27 percent to 3
Ironically, the person who would have ranked seventh on this list was Steve Elkington, whose bogey on No. 17 in 1991 changed his win probability from 66 percent to 42. Blackmar was tied with Elkington heading into the 71st hole, but an untimely water excursion and an ensuing double-bogey 5 saw Blackmar’s win probability plummet to almost nil. Elkington, meanwhile, managed to recover from his own misstep (which did not include water) to birdie the 18th hole and win by a shot.
4. Davis Love III, 1995:34 percent to 1
Love came into 17 holding a share of the lead, but a double bogey essentially ended his chances at winning his second in Players title in four years after victory in 1992. “I should have won this,” he said afterward. “I threw away enough chances.” In the end, it was Lee Janzen who took the title at five under, with Love finishing in a tie for sixth. Love would win again, however, in 2003.
3. Ed Fiori, 1983:39 percent to 2
Hal Sutton technically claimed a wire-to-wire victory in ’83, but Fiori was tied with Sutton standing on the 17th tee before a water detour resulting in double-bogey 5 put an end to his comeback bid. Fiori went on to make another double on 18, finishing four shots off Sutton’s winning score.
2. Sergio Garcia, 2013: 44 percent to 0
We all remember this one, don’t we?
The situation was already fraught considering Sergio’s complicated relationship with his co-leader, Tiger Woods, and whether he was trying too hard to be perfect, or whether the nerves overwhelmed him, his double dip into the island waters gave us a memory we won’t forget … even if we wish we could.
1. Scott Gump, 1999: 47 percent to 1
Narrowly edging out Sergio’s aqua-theatrics is Gump, who was one of just two players that year under par when he arrived at the island green. A bad club choice—8-iron—saw him go from an essentially even chance at victory to 1 percent, giving the tournament for all intents and purposes to David Duval, whose final-round 73 was good enough to secure a two-shot win.
It’s easy to remember a really painful golf collapse, because the scene is so excruciating and lonely, but there’s an added element of despair when it happens at No. 17. There are a few possible explanations, but the best might be that when water comes into play, an errant ball simply disappears. The mistake is permanent, and the sphere becomes a perfect metaphor for the prospect of victory—sinking, vanishing, irrecoverable.