This is one of those columns that gets the writer accused of being a pearl-clutching ninny, and/or old, and/or stodgy, and/or lame. Some of those may be correct. But the truth is, after years of witnessing the drunken delirium of the WM Phoenix Open, and in particular the par-3 16th at TPC Scottsdale, and contrasting to the action this week at the Players Championship, there’s only one conclusion a sane person can reach: the scene at the island green 17th at TPC Sawgrass is everything that’s fantastic about professional golf, and it puts Phoenix to shame.

Let’s start in the desert. Joel Beall, in a piece published the day after this year’s WM Phoenix Open, categorised the carnage from that event:

“Cameras caught Billy Horschel and Zach Johnson confronting spectators. Ben An called it a “s–tshow” on social media. There was also a viral video of fans fighting, an individual fell from the stands and Saturday’s atmosphere was so out of control that the gates were eventually closed and alcohol sales were cut off.”

And Beall’s argument was that tournament officials could be trusted to figure it out, meaning it was more or less sympathetic to it all. For years, that tournament has been sold as a welcome novelty on tour, and when I covered it in 2014, it was intermittently amusing. Always, though, there has been a kind of sinister undercurrent of menace and even decay. It’s a little like Hunter S. Thompson’s famous essay on the Kentucky Derby: littered with funny anecdotes, but dispiriting, sad and disturbing at its core. This year was worse than ever, and it was a mild surprise at the conclusion that nobody was seriously hurt. You had fights, you had furious players and you had extensive drunkenness, and in the end it left you with a sense of dread. The perfect microcosm came in the form of “Big Lou”, who slid shirtless down a wet hill in a grotesque spectacle treated like a triumph by the gathered inebriates, hailed as the peak of hilarity by the internet and taken by the rest of us as a sure sign that we’ve reached the early to middle stages of the apocalypse.

In other words, Phoenix is decadent and depraved, and not in a fun way. Or, at the very least, it gets less fun with every passing year, and serves an increasingly dark reflection of the worst of golf culture.

Pete Dye had very different plans for TPC Sawgrass’ 17th hole in his original drawings

On the light side, though, the Sawgrass’ island green continues to be a celebration of all that’s best. Crucially, there’s nothing uptight about it; it’s festive, it’s light-hearted, and it can be a very funny scene, too. Unlike the confined stadium setting of 16 at Phoenix, here you can see the action on the previous hole, and the entire tableau feels open and expansive. People get drunk. People yell. There’s tension, and near-aces, and water balls, and the whole extent of the golf experience. When NBC television cuts to the tee, you can hear the low anticipatory hum; this isn’t boring. It’s even a little bit edgy. But the intensity isn’t off-putting, and you don’t get the sense that it’s going to spill into violence at a moment’s notice. This is a place where I have plenty of fun just sitting and watching by myself, but where anybody could bring their kids without fear that they would return home with mild trauma or at least a much dimmer view of humanity.

Certain moments in recent golf history, from Phoenix to the Bryson-bashing at Memphis in 2021 to the Ryder Cup (particularly Hazeltine National in 2016), have felt ugly in a way that goes beyond the priggish complaints that sometimes haunt the game and give golf an old fogy reputation. This doesn’t feel puritanical; it feels realistic. But scenes like the island green are proof that we don’t have to fall down this slippery slope, where live tournaments become testosterone-fuelled debaucheries that are fundamentally hostile to normal people looking to have a normal time. This is spectator golf at its best, with great action played out on a beautiful course and a democratic, easygoing vibe that never gives way to the darker impulses of the mob. It affirms that we can have nice things. Nor must it be limited to Sawgrass. In the world of professional golf, the island green doesn’t have to be an island.