CHARLOTTE, N.C. Nick Watney stepped to the tee at the 217-yard, par-3 17th at Quail Hollow, launched a towering 5-iron and watched as it zeroed in on the flagstick.
Then a gust of wind came up, and the small crowd gathered around the tee groaned as Watney's ball splashed down short of the green.
Watney walked over to his bag, grabbed a 4-iron and made another effortless swing. This time his ball hit the stone wall in front of green, ricocheted high in the air and again found the pond.
All Watney could do before hitting his third tee shot was laugh. Good thing it was only a casual practice round.
Next week at the Players Championship, the 137-yard, par-3 17th will once again take center stage at TPC Sawgrass and with good reason. The island green is one of the most iconic holes in golf, the subject of endless debate and a tough par for anyone trying to win on Sunday.
"What's intimidating at the 17th at Sawgrass is obviously it's a shorter hole, so you're supposed to hit a decent shot," Padraig Harrington said. "Sometimes that's very frustrating for a pro when he's got a pitching wedge in his hand, and he can't hit it on the green. We're meant to be pros."
But the 17th at Quail Hollow is the signature hole for a reason. Like most signature holes, it has the "wow" factor the moment you see it. From an elevated tee, players are usually hitting long irons or even hybrids to an undulating green, almost completely surrounded by a pond.
"You just have to suck it up and hit a great shot," Brad Faxon said.
The only bail out is right, where players are faced with either a putt from down in a hollow, or a pitch off a tight lie. A poor pitch shot could easily roll off the green and into the water.
"That's as hard a chip shot as any you can have," Faxon said.
Adding to the difficulty of the hole is a cluster of trees that surround the tee box, making it a challenge for players to judge the wind. Watney said he never noticed the wind until his first tee shot was at its apex and he felt a gust in his face.
"Even if you hit it on the green, you've got work to do here," Watney said.
With a kind pin location and no wind, the 17th at Sawgrass can be a birdie hole. Ask the pros if they're ever thinking about birdie when standing on the 17th tee at Quail Hollow, and they'll probably start laughing before you can finish the question.
"Any time you hit the green and make par, you're ahead of the game," Harrington said.
The three finishing holes at Quail Hollow are known as "The Green Mile" and have played as the toughest finishing stretch on the PGA Tour in seven of the last eight years.
Before the par-3 17th, players have to deal with one of the toughest greens on the course at the 483-yard, par-4 16th. On the 478-yard, par-4 18th, a bunker waits for any tee shot that strays right, while a creek runs along the entire left side.
TPC Sawgrass also has a notoriously tough closing stretch, but it's slightly easier than Quail Hollow because players have a good chance for birdie, or even eagle, at the 523-yard, par-5 16th.
"If you could finish in three pars [at Quail Hollow] with a one-shot lead, you'd probably win by two," Harrington said.