Rock has Katayama's ball, and that's huge. It's Friday
afternoon at the Players Championship, and the number of fans
occupying vantage points overlooking the 4,500-square-foot
island that is the 17th green at the TPC at Sawgrass has grown
to about 7,000. As usual, and with a little help from a swirling
wind, the 17th is eating scorecards. Thirty-one players hit into
the water on Day One, another 19 will splash down today, and a
total of 72 will suffer the same fate as Luca Brasi before Craig
Perks is crowned champion on Sunday evening. As if to prove
that the 137-yard hole isn't that hard, though, Miguel Angel
Jimenez stopped by on Thursday morning and dealt an ace. That's
what makes 17 the most exciting par-3 on Tour. The line between
in the hole and in the drink is thinner than Charles Howell, and
either way it's going to be exciting. If the tee-shot drama
isn't compelling enough, there's always a chance that someone
will drop a 60-foot double-breaking, uppercut-inducing birdie
putt. (See Woods, Tiger, 2001.) Then there's this: From the
hillside at 17, spectators can also watch the action on the 16th
green and the 18th tee and fairway--a luxury-box-like view of a
brutal closing stretch over which, more times than not, the
tournament is decided.
The 17th is the place where fans can see millionaires throw
things in disgust, couples get engaged, rednecks, frat boys and
corporate execs booze like brothers, more side-betting than at a
cockfight and some amazing golf shots. That brings us back to
A 21-year-old technical rep for Adams Golf, Rock played
professionally for a while, on the Dakotas tour, before returning
home to Jacksonville. Tall, thin and animated, he has the face of
a teenager, unlined and dotted with light freckles across the
nose. He talks loudly and pushes his face forward to emphasize
key words: "Dude (push), I would totally (push) love (push) to
play in front of a crowd like this. I would pump (push) this
crowd (push) up (push)."
At about 9:30 a.m., Rock and his crew of four plop down on the
little strip of land that extends out to the green. They are
suspiciously overloaded with bottles of Coke, which they pour
into clear plastic cups. Before long Rock's older brother, Tim,
opens his shirt and flashes a plump bladder. "Jim Beam," he says.
"Golf is secondary."
"That's right," says another member of the crew, Evan. "Some
people come for the birdies, we come for the beauties." As the
Jim Beam disappears and the Bud Lights from the concession stand
on 18 take their place, Rock, Tim, Evan & Co. become
particularly adept at "encouraging" players as they walk past
and onto the green. When the excitable, Stetson-wearing Japanese
bantamweight, Shingo Katayama, sticks one close, "we give him a
lot of love on the way past," Rock says. Minutes later Katayama
is juiced after making birdie, and as he walks off, Rock shouts,
"Way to go cowboy, nice shot." Katayama pumps a fist and flips
his shiny white Srixon ball, complete with Japanese marking,
right into Rock's hands. This fires up Rock, who takes to
periodically yelling, "I've got Katayama's ball (push) in my
pocket, and that's huge (push)."
For every Rock, there's a Barbara Linehan, an 87-year-old
grandmother who leaves her house in Jacksonville Beach at 5 a.m.
so she can get a prime spot along the ropes. She's a so-called
roper. A smiling woman with curly white hair puffing up through
an autograph-covered visor, Linehan has come to the tournament
every year since moving to Florida from Plymouth, Mass., in 1995.
This year her weeklong pass was a Christmas gift from her
daughter, Priscilla Corbett, who sits next to her. "I told
Priscilla I didn't want anything for Christmas. I didn't need
anything," Linehan says. "Then I opened the envelope and almost
died." She was thrilled to have had her picture taken with Vijay
Singh during a practice round. Linehan says she gravitates toward
17 for her own reason: "It's a great spot because it's a very
exciting shot, but I like it because the sun helps keep you warm
As the afternoon wears on, the crowd grows thicker, and the
action on the green picks up. For the second day in a row Stuart
Appleby comes to the tee with at least a share of the lead only
to hit into the water. This time he slams his club across his
leg. Later, Rich Beem, David Frost and Padraig Harrington make
crowd-stirring birdies, while Fred Couples puts one in the drink
on the way to a double bogey, evoking pained groans from the
The action around the hole is intense too. Throughout the crowd
fevered knots of fans holding folded pairing sheets can be seen
haggling, repeating the phrase, "Who you got?" They're playing
Closest to the Pin. For a buck, pick a player. Pay double if your
guy hits in the water; win double if your guy makes a birdie.
"There's no betting at Bushwood, and I never slice," says Kevin
Coyne when asked about the game he and his buddies are playing.
In a baseball cap, wraparound shades, wind vest and pleated
shorts, Coyne looks as if he raided a club pro's closet. Once he
drops the Judge Smails act, Coyne concedes that 17 is a terrific
spot to pick up some extra cash. "This is the place," he says.
Farther down the hill three women in their 20s mill around
drinking beer from cups. Rene, a tall blonde, and Randii and
Tammy, shorter brunettes, have the kind of deep tans that look as
if they emanate from within. Tammy admits that the tournament is
mostly a social event for them--"Golf? Who's playing?" she
says--but is willing to talk as long as "no one makes us look
stupid." Her favorite player? "Robert Duvall."
Rene quickly corrects her. "David Duval. DD, local boy." Duval is
approaching 16 at that very moment, and the crowd around the
already packed 17th--swollen by the recent passage of Tiger
Woods's group--starts to grow even more in anticipation of his
arrival. By this time almost any semblance of golf etiquette has
disappeared. Many of the people walking around socializing are
oblivious to the golfers teeing off or putting. A peroxide blonde
with a Jayne Mansfield figure and a flimsy T-shirt walks back and
forth from tee to green three times, drawing stares from the
multitude. The air hums with a constant buzz of conversation,
making the 17th something like playing through a Bennigan's at
On Saturday the arrivals of Duval and Woods incite
confrontations as traveling galleries encroach on fans ensconced
at 17 since early morning. One guy is escorted out by the police
to a chorus of "Na, na! Na, na, na, na! Hey, hey, hey, goodbye."
Two other fans--one of them wearing a hat that says BETTY FORD
CLINIC on the front and OUTPATIENT on the back--share a redneck
picnic (a cardboard box filled with ice and Bud). As Craig
Stadler plays his third shot from the drop area, Tiger, who's
standing on the strip of land leading to the island, turns to
the fans and pushes down with his arms, the universal signal for
shut the hell up.
The loudest cheers come after the best shots--birdies by Tom
Lehman on a long chip and by Perks on a 40-foot putt, giving him
a share of the lead. The gallery also stirs when 28-year-old
Jason Press, an information technician from Manhattan, proposes
to his girlfriend, 26-year-old Stacy Schectman, a New York City
merchandiser, between Jose Maria Olazabal's par putt and Bernhard
Langer's tee shot. Press does it by turning to Schectman and
unfurling a three-by-four-foot poster of the 17th green that has
STACY MARRY ME LOVE JASON written on it. "There's, like, 15 of us
who fly in from all over the country for the tournament, and we
always sit here at 17," says a still-trembling Schectman. (She
accepted on the spot.)
Sunday brings a totally different kind of crowd. Sure, there's a
group of guys who've achieved a certain synergy--instead of
dollars they're betting chugs of beer--and a flock of "Go in the
hole!" birds has nested around the tee, but overall the word for
the day is more. More people with more chairs and more beach
towels. There's more of a set-up-camp-and-stay-put attitude. In
general these folks are better-looking, better-dressed and better
golf fans. This is more of a sip than a swig crowd, and in
anticipation of another tense finish, the focus is more on the
little white orb.
That brings us back to Rock and Friday afternoon. A few hours
after the Katayama incident, Frank Nobilo, Brett Quigley and
Grant Waite reach the 17th green. Nobilo, buried at 11 over,
walks off after a routine par when Rock and the boys start in.
"Way to go, Frank. Nice job." Appearing more surprised than
anything, Nobilo looks up and flips his ball right to Tim.
Tim hands the ball to Rock, who clearly is trying to decide
whether he should be disappointed that he's no longer the only
one with something for show-and-tell. At last he gives the ball
back. "Oh, Frank Nobilo, a Pro V1 with two dots on it," he says.
"I've got Katayama's (push) ball (push) in my (push) pocket, and
talk as long as "no one makes us look stupid." Her favorite
player? "Robert Duvall."
to the fans and pushes down with his arms, the universal signal
for shut the hell up.