Every golf course on the planet seems to have a dogleg par-4 with a few inconveniences built in. And then there’s the 17th hole at The Country Club, which for more than a century has been a place of both glory and grief for the game’s foremost practitioners.
“Seventeen has been the star of so many competitions that it’s like a role player who comes on and plays a vital part in the telling of the story,” said club historian Fred Waterman.
The 17th, called “The Elbow,” on a 19th-century course where each hole has a name, is where local boy Francis Ouimet dropped two priceless birdie putts on the way to his historic triumph in the 1913 US Open.
It’s where Harry Vardon’s gamble in that year’s playoff went awry. Where Jacky Cupit, Arnold Palmer, and Curtis Strange all three-putted with Open victories in reach. Where Julius Boros won the 1963 Open after making birdies in both the final round and playoff. And where Justin Leonard holed the uphill 45-footer that capped the Americans’ historic comeback in the 1999 Ryder Cup.
“At some point in the past 20 years, I’ve met everybody who was on that green,” Leonard said in 2019. “Or said they were.”
Such is the enduring enchantment of a 370-yard hole whose devilish topography and penultimate position on the scorecard present a dilemma for even the most skilled players.
“This course and this hole are all about decision-making,” Waterman said.
The 17th has evolved since Ouimet’s time to adjust to the modern game. There are four bunkers on the left now, plus “chocolate drop” mounds to make the dogleg more challenging for long hitters trying to take a shortcut to the green.
“I’m curious to see how they’re going to attack it,” said Gil Hanse, the renowned course architect who has done significant work on the celebrated Brookline layout over the years. “It’ll be one of these holes where club selection is going to be really intriguing.”
By definition, doglegs require choosing among options, and the 17th presents several. Lay up short of the left-side bunkers? Hit to the right side of a narrow, sloped fairway where a tree stands sentinel before a two-tiered green guarded by five more bunkers?
Or tempt fate and go for the shortcut over the elbow?
That was Vardon’s choice when he was a stroke down to Ouimet with one hole to go in the playoff. He doubted that Ouimet, playing a course that he knew blindfolded, would crack. Vardon would have to catch him.
So he gambled left and his ball found the bunker that still is named for him, and the Briton had to settle for bogey.
”Vardon’s tee shot demonstrated clearly that he was playing with the desperation born of despair,” observed Ouimet, who put his own shot down the middle, hit a mashie to 25 feet, and sank the putt for the birdie that put him three up. “For the first time in the tournament, I felt safe.”
You never know when 17 will swallow you up, especially when the breeze is blowing as it was during the 1963 US Open when the winning score (9 over) was the highest since 1935. Cupit, then an unfamiliar Texan who’d won only two tournaments, was unaware that he led by two strokes with two holes to play.
He aimed a 3-wood short of the bunker and watched the wind push the ball into the high grass alongside. Cupit’s 9-iron went into the right rough, his approach sailed 30 feet long, and he three-putted for double bogey.
Had his 15-footer not nicked the cup on 18 after his 6-iron hero bid from the rough (”The greatest shot I ever hit”), Cupit would have won instead of losing to Boros in a playoff.
“People always bring up the double bogey,” he said years later. “But what nobody remembers is how I played the 18th.”
What happens on the 17th green traditionally is more memorable, both for better and worse. When adjacent Clyde Street was widened in 1958, the green was moved 30 feet to the right, which softened the dogleg but presented a tricky right-to-left slope that’s easy to misjudge. Palmer three-putted there from less than 2 feet in 1963 and ended up in the playoff.
Strange, who’d taken the lead in the 1988 Open with a 25-footer on the par-3 16th, twice ran long on 17. He thought he was playing it safe from 15 feet above the hole and was stunned to watch the ball go 6 feet past.
“I hit the damn thing as easy as I thought I should have,” Strange said. “I couldn’t have hit it much easier. I was in shock when I saw how far it rolled by. Shock.”
Strange made up for it in the playoff, dropping a 4-footer on 17 while Nick Faldo chipped 8 feet past and missed his par putt.
The Country Club’s course, a blend of the Clyde and Squirrel nines, takes a lot of knowing. So said Ouimet, who grew up across the street and began sneaking on to practice when he was 6.
Leonard picked up a priceless bit of intelligence when he asked a caddie where he thought the Sunday pin placement would be on 17. After the caddie reckoned top right, Leonard tried a few putts in advance, then hit one up and over perfectly with the Cup on the line.
“Probably the most improbable putt that I’ve ever seen go down,” US captain Ben Crenshaw, who was kneeling at the back of the green, told the FORE the Good of the Game podcast. “It was absolutely spooky . . . That’s Francis’s green.”
The green has been refashioned several times over the decades, most notably by Geoffrey Cornish and Rees Jones, and it will be wider this time in front and back.
“It’s a different footprint than it was in 1999,” Hanse said.
But the essence of the 17th, from tee to green, hasn’t changed. It’s all about calculating risk and reward, especially when a trophy and a hefty paycheck are within view.
“You’re judging your abilities but you’re also judging your opponent’s abilities,” Waterman said. “Is your opponent ready for the moment? Will he make the right choice?”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.