2015 Winner Rickie Fowler Wants To Emulate Paul Azinger’s Success On Hole No. 17 During The Upcoming PLAYERS Championship
There was a time when Paul Azinger always assumed but had never sat down to find out for sure if he was the only player to hold a special distinction in golf. Eventually, Azinger realized his unique place in PLAYERS Championship lore.
At the 2015 PLAYERS Championship, Azinger’s position wasn’t threatened. But Rickie Fowler sure made Azinger sit up and take notice.
Since the first PLAYERS Championship held at TPC Sawgrass in 1982, only one player has birdied the 17th hole 100 percent of the time during one tournament. Azinger is that player. There is no “100 percent” for Fowler, but the Californian does need an asterisk because he birdied the par-3 17th island hole—get ready—five times. It’s just that he needed six tries to get there.
More on that in a minute. But, first, Azinger’s story. It’s quite a tale. In 1987, Azinger made history by going birdie- birdie-birdie-birdie on TPC Sawgrass’ No. 17. Nobody had done that before or since.
Azinger vividly recalls that 1987 tournament, his four tee shots over water to the island green and all four birdie putts that made their way to the bottom of the hole. But what is most memorable to him is that he was in contention to win THE PLAYERS, his four birdies just a side note to what he was really trying to accomplish.
With birdies on No. 17 the first three days, Azinger entered the final round tied for sixth. He was paired with Sandy Lyle and Jeff Sluman on the last day.
Although the win didn’t materialize—he finished in that same tie for sixth—Azinger cemented his place in PLAYERS Championship history with his play on the 17th.
Unlike Azinger, Fowler did win at one of golf ’s most famous courses. His only blemish on No. 17 for the week was his third-round par. In all his other rounds—plus the playoff and sudden-death—Fowler was making birdies. In order to win, Fowler pretty much had to make birdie on all three of his trips to No. 17 on Sunday. Midway through his back nine Sunday, Fowler looked hopelessly out of contention. Then he played the final six holes of regulation in 6-under—the birdie at No. 17 included. Here’s how he did it.
“I’ve played that pin, I’ve played the hole well, so just picked a line a little bit left of the target or left of the pin and hit a perfect shot, hit it right where I was looking. And I knew the putt there,” Fowler said before describing his playoff birdie on the same hole about 30 minutes later. “I was able to just hit a choke-down gap wedge, and it played a little longer in the play- off the two times. But I just had a good [yardage]. I’ve always liked playing 17. It’s been good to me. I played it well all week.”
His last sentence was possibly the understatement of Fowler’s career.
Despite Fowler’s 2015 heroics, his five birdies to Azinger’s four that led to his signature professional victory, nobody but Azinger has been perfect at No. 17 in one tournament.
Azinger’s adventures on the island green didn’t start in 1987, though. At the 1983 PGA TOUR National Qualifying Tournament, Azinger was battling through a difficult fifth round, trying to maintain his position and earn his PGA TOUR card. On a day he would shoot a 7-over 77, it was No. 17 that stalled his dream of joining the TOUR.
“The pin was on the right side in that fifth round. I was stand- ing over my shot on the tee, and then I backed off. I remember that,” says Azinger, who last competed in THE PLAYERS in 2007 and is primarily a television broadcaster now. “I stepped back up and hit it, and my ball hit the wood (surrounding the green) and went in the water. Then I chunked my next shot, I hit two in the water and took a 7 (quadruple bogey) there.”
The next day, in Q-School’s final round, Azinger says he thought about that hole all day. When he finally reached 17, he nearly duplicated his effort from the round before when his tee shot landed on the fringe. “I putted with my right foot on the wood, made a bomb for birdie and earned my card by two strokes.”
Fourteen years after his Q-School adventures, Azinger made history at the island par-3, draining four straight birdie putts. That week he hit two 8-irons, a 9-iron and a wedge into No. 17.
“On the last day (of the 1987 PLAYERS), the pin was in the back right, and I nuked an 8-iron in there to four feet,” Azinger explains. “At the time, it was the most intimidating hole in golf.”
“If the conditions are tough, if the wind is blowing, it’s still the most intimidating hole in golf.”