Number 17 Proves Pivotal in Match Play October 7, 2015 | Vero Beach, Fla. By Ron Driscoll, USGA

The 494-yard 17th hole has proven to be a terrific risk-reward par 5 in match play this week at John's Island Club's West Course. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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The John’s Island Club scorecard ranks the par-5 17th hole of the West Course as the easiest on the Tom Fazio layout. Not surprisingly, the hole also played as the easiest in the two stroke-play rounds of the 2015 U.S. Mid-Amateur, tallying a 4.86 average for the field, with 15 eagles.

Those figures don’t begin to describe the drama the hole can present, or the disappointment it can wreak. Since the match-play rounds began on Monday, it has been won several times with pars, and it proved to be Jess Daley’s undoing in the lone match of Wednesday’s quarterfinals to reach that point.

“It’s a great match-play hole,” said Daley. “If you hit a bad drive and you have to lay up, it’s very difficult, and that’s the way it should be.”

The 494-yard hole presents a risk-reward opportunity at a pivotal moment, and several players have gambled and lost. The tee shot favors a left-to-right ball flight, and many of the Mid-Amateur players  typically have had only 180 to 210 yards left to the green.

From the right side of the fairway, it’s possible to see the green and hit the approach through a chute over a large sandy area. From the left, that approach shot is blind and needs to carry a tree-filled hillside. If a player finds the rough off the tee, as both Daley and Brad Wilder did in their quarterfinal match, the hole’s difficulty ramps up considerably, and most players play to the left of the green, toward a plateau that leaves a wedge third shot into the perched green.

“At first, we were envisioning setting it up as just a straightforward, hard [par] 4,” said Bill McCarthy, the Mid-Amateur championship director for the USGA since 2010. “But it’s interesting in that it’s a ‘tweener,’ from both a setup and a playability standpoint. How the players play it is dictated by their aggressiveness and the result of their tee shot.”

Daley and Wilder came to No. 17 all square, having halved the previous five holes, two with birdies. Both players drove into the left rough, with Daley facing a sidehill lie from the sticky bermudagrass. Wilder missed the fairway by a couple of feet, with a level lie. Daley’s second shot with an iron reached the top of the ridge to the left of the plateau green, but it hung up in the right rough 95 yards away, while Wilder was much closer to the green with an uphill, 25-yard pitch.

Daley ended up flying his wedge from the rough long and left of the green, and Wilder pitched deftly to within a foot of the hole. When Daley was unable to hole out his flop shot, he trailed. Wilder eventually prevailed, 1 up.

“I’m typically not a fan of blind holes,” said Wilder. “But I think today was a great example, because I hit it too far left and I had a decision to make because the lie in the rough was so iffy. I only had 190 yards, but if I had tried to go for the green, it could have come out low and hit one of those trees. From that standpoint, it’s a great match-play hole.”

In Tuesday afternoon’s Round of 16, only one of the eight matches got to No. 17, but Marc Dull won the hole with a par to Kyle Nathan’s bogey to gain his first lead of the day en route to a 2-up victory.

One reason the hole played so easily during the two stroke-play rounds is that McCarthy was mindful of getting 132 players around the West Course over those two days. Along with the 15 eagles, there were 90 birdies, 95 pars, 49 bogeys, 13 double bogeys and two higher scores.

“For stroke play, we decided to reward the drive up the right side and allow them to see the hole [which was located on the right side of the green],” said McCarthy. “That would also allow players to see the group ahead of them and see when they’re finishing play. I think that helped with getting players through that hole, and it played as more of a ‘four-ish’ hole.”

For the first round of match play, the hole was positioned at the front left of the green, an area that McCarthy described as “a little slopey.” The shot became blind from almost every approach angle, and combined with the dropoff in front of the hole, the hole was frequently halved in pars in the Round of 64.

“When players don’t hit the perfect drive, they have to have the confidence to take it over that duned island in the middle, or else they tend to hit it short left and pitch it up [to the green],” said McCarthy.

“You have to cut the ball [left to right] off the tee,” said Daley. “If you don’t, you will go through the fairway and you will have that situation where you’re not going to be able to fly it over the trees.”

Semifinalist David Bolen, of Lubbock, Texas, has played the hole well all week – when he has gotten there. He won it with a birdie in the first round, then made a halving par in the Round of 32 after hitting his 6-iron approach into the front bunker and failing to get up and down.

“In stroke play, I made eagle there – I hit driver, 5-iron to about 15 feet,” said Bolen, who noted that it favors his left-to-right ball flight. “If you hit it in the fairway there, it is a par 4. But if you hit it into the left rough, you have to play it as a three-shot hole, because then you’ve got to get it over that mess in front of the green. I’m just trying to get it on the short stuff.”

Aren’t they all.

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.

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