First, you should know that my favorite holiday is Christmas. My favorite cookie: chocolate chip. My favorite search engine: Google. So if you were expecting my preferred viewing station at the Players to be some heretofore unnoticed patch of pine needles behind the 5th green — well, sorry to disappoint you. My favorite vantage point on the Stadium course is the spectator slope to the left of and slightly behind the island green at the par-3 17th.
Seventeen, I concede, doesn’t need my seal of approval. On a sunny afternoon upward of 10,000 people pack the grandstand, jam the sky boxes and sunbathe on the grassy berm that wraps around golf’s most treacherous pond. “Every course needs a hole that puckers your rear end,” NBC’s Johnny Miller once said of Pete and Alice Dye’s famous par-3 — and he wasn’t even taking sore fannies into account. Throw in the fact that the 17th will have 10 high-def TV cameras trained upon it and dozens of press photographers elbowing each other for position, and it’s clear that there is no better vantage point in tournament golf.
But just as some concert seats are better than others, there are preferred sight lines at 17. I like to stand at the top of the berm where the row of glass-walled sky boxes ends. The intersection of two paved cart paths gives this busy junction, with its noisy drinkers and beeping utility carts, a kind of Times Square bustle — an illusion heightened by the flashing lights of the electronic scoreboard behind the green.
And, yes, I did say stand. I love this spot because it affords a clear view of both the 17th hole and, on the opposite shore, the 16th green. But the 18th tee is just on the other side of the berm. So while the golfers and caddies are striding off the 17th tee for their hike around the pond, I typically drift up the cart path — a journey of no more than 30 yards — and plant myself on the hill overlooking the final set of tee markers.
For reasons I have never understood, very few spectators choose this vantage point. Here’s what they’re missing: a bird’s-eye view, from directly behind the golfers, of one of golf’s most challenging par-4s. You get the full sweep of the fairway as it curves to the left around a glistening lake; the grove of pines on the right that snares the timid straight ball and the nervous fade; the distant green with its snow-white, boomerang-shaped bunker; the wraparound grandstands that look as if they belong in a minor league ballpark; and the palatial clubhouse with its terraced lawns and terra-cotta roofs.
Is this not golf-watching nirvana? By simply sliding to and fro, like a scroll bar on a screen, I can follow the action on all three finishing holes. Two years ago, for example, I managed to catch not only the final-round drama of young Sean O’Hair, who, trailing by two, dunked two shots in the water on 17, but also the reckless response of the ultimate champion, Phil Mickelson, who blocked his approach on 18 to the very edge of the water hazard. (Gasp!) Last year the stars of the finish were the walking emoticon, Sergio Garcia, and his wry challenger, the well-worn Paul Goydos. My vantage point provided a 50-yard-line perspective on the three finishing holes plus the one-hole playoff, which ended when Goydos missed the islands on 17. (There is a second island, if you haven’t noticed. Offered a seat on that tiny isle, in the shade of the perfectly centered oak, I might give up my current perch.)
The best Players, in my opinion, had to be the ’02 edition. That’s the year when 35-year-old Craig Perks, who had never won a PGA Tour event, accrued roughly 100 feet of hole outs on the closing holes. He pitched in for an eagle 3 on 16 (roar!), canned a 28-foot birdie putt on 17 (roar!) and then won the tournament by holing out a wedge shot for par from thick rough behind the 18th green (ROAR!). As I often tell my friends, “Had I not been covering the Kraft Nabisco that year, I would have seen it all!”
And a lot more. During the inevitable lulls, when the network cameras lock on the frowning face of some Tour veteran reading his island-green putt as if it’s a lender’s disclosure form, I turn my attention to the passing parade. It’s a people-watcher’s paradise, that bermtop. Half the folks have literally stumbled out of the sky boxes, which must have beer hoses dangling from the ceiling. The other half are young women in sundresses who brazenly troll for marriageable men among the flotsam and jetsam of graying middle managers. As I often tell my wife, “No, dear, it was the same old same old.”
You, of course, may have found some corner of the Stadium course with just as much spectator appeal — some charming knoll where the sun is always at your back, waiters walk around with trays of crab cakes and Tiger always drains the triple-breaking 50-footer.
But I’m guessing you have not.