Manufactured Drama: The Tour’s Unhealthy Obsession With “Going Low”

Without Tiger Woods in the mix, the PGA Tour needs to generate some excitement and get golf into the headlines. Cue the birdies.

Thrash TalkGoing low is all the rage, as the magic number has been achieved or threatened near weekly this summer. It was fun at first, but now it’s obscene. There’s no question the spate of birdie binges is a result of a concerted effort to inject life into the low-level Tour stops. We all know how good these guys are. How about a bit of a test tossed into their 18-hole afternoons?

As with all sports, golf’s all about the drama. When the world’s best are dueling down the stretch, that’s exciting. When they’re facing the challenge of battling themselves, holding a big lead or charging from behind, there’s a story to be told, a reason to root. But when the game is lacking any compelling story lines, what’s left? Who can make 10 birdie putts vs. who can make 11 birdie putts? It’s fake, it’s a fraud, it’s manufactured drama.

Mind boggling scores were once reserved for the developmental tours, where everyone had to go low, and everyone knew it. It was nothing but balls-out, pin-hunting, extreme golf. Leave the gimmick golf to the minor leagues.

The better the fields, the higher the prize, and the more classic the courses. And the less buzz they need to generate in an attempt to compensate for the third-tier field. When Steve Stricker overcame Paul Goydos’ 59 with a two-shot win thanks to a 60 of his own, he was one of barely a handful of the game’s elite playing the John Deere. Where are the game’s elite on these fit-to-be-burned courses? Would Tiger or Phil have made a run at that title with their own rounds in the low 60s? Why would they? Who wants to get into a situation where your only option to win is out-birdie 150 guys? It becomes little more than a putting contest, and whoever’s got the hottest short stick that week will hoist the trophy.

There are a lot of aspects to being a champion golfer. When a course offers so little penalty that guys are tripping over each other to post scores around 60, it changes from a chess match that tests an entire game – precision, recovery, mental fortitude – to becoming a shootout where you better pull out all the stops, letting strategy and discipline fall by the wayside.

For decades, 59 has been a mythical number in sports. It ranks right up there with a perfect game in either bowling or baseball. Let’s hope it remains the quirky feat accomplished by a handful of pitchers, and not the joke that’s turned bowling a 300 from a career highlight to a near common occurrence.

In baseball, 27 up, 27 down still means a guy had a magical day. It usually requires a lucky break or two, a great defensive play or a line drive that lands a foot foul rather than a foot fair. Much like golf’s 59 crew – Goydos, Stuart Appleby, Chip Beck, David Duval and Al Geiberger – baseball’s perfect game pitchers aren’t exactly a who’s who of the greatest of all time. Like Duval, who was at the top of the game, Cy Young and Sandy Koufax each had perfect days. And just like Goydos, who very much defines the term journeyman, there are guys on the baseball list such as Mark Buehrle.

Like baseball’s super feat, golf’s 59 remains intriguing, a day when everything goes right and it’s still something people will tune into if it’s the ninth inning or the 18th hole. But when you add the fact that there’s been a “59 watch” week in and week out on the PGA Tour, it raises the fear that sub-60 is going to go the way of the 300. There have been 11 rounds of 62 or better in the past month. Add the 57 shot by teenager Bobby Wyatt in Alabama and a pro-am 56 on the Nationwide Tour, and the 50s are losing their magic status. And don’t forget, Ryo Ishikawa shot 58 in a Japan Tour event.

For a long time, bowling a perfect game made you a local hero, your name posted above the pins in those cool press-on letters. Then something changed, and changed drastically. In 2000, the New York Times pointed to the sea of change in the sport. Blaming bowling ball technology and a far more player-friendly application of oil on the lanes, the game changed drastically. In the 1968-69, the American Bowling Congress recorded 905 perfect games nationwide. In the 1998-99 season, there were 34,470.

Funny how bowlers can point the finger at technology and easing of the field of play. Circling it back to golf, we know that technology has run amok and that architects and governing bodies have been adamant about adding length to courses to keep up. There’s far far less talk of how they’ve toughened greens complexes, narrowed fairways, or added hazards.

We’re facing a perfect storm that’s brewing these mega-low scores. The players are great and getting better. The conditions are pristine at every Tour stop, making it possible to get red hot on the greens. The low-level Tour stops are desperate for coverage and buzz, and are willing to set up their courses in a way that players will go pin seeking all week. Give the guys credit, the opportunities have been there, and they’ve pulled it off.

But the Tour better not go the way of bowling, and get drunk on the instant rush a 59 delivers. We’re close to too much of a good thing and a couple more before the one magic score the sport has ever known will go the way of the 300 — aka, who cares?

11 thoughts on “Manufactured Drama: The Tour’s Unhealthy Obsession With “Going Low””

  1. I see your point, but the examples you gave of bowling a 300 or pitching a perfect game are not really comparable. Mainly because in golf, the “powers that be” have the ability to make the playing field more difficult. In bowling for example, you cant make the lane longer, or make it break a little more from left to right. With pitching its the same way… its always the same distance from the mound to the plate, and the ball never touches the playing field so you cant maipulate that. Every hole on every golf course can be manipulated to produce a particular result, therefore completely separating itself from the other two examples you gave. A 59 will never loose its muster in my opinion because no matter how easy the course, it still takes luck, and one hell of a golfer to be firing on all cylinders at a particular moment to be able to pull it off.

    Also, these tournaments were basically glorified Nationwide events. There were maybe one or two top 25 guys in the field both times, and the courses didn’t have any kind of grand nastalgia either. I say you have a case when we see a 59 at Augusta… or St. Andrews… or at Whistling Straits next weekend.

  2. Joe,
    Bowling has gotten easier in part because of how they prepare the lanes, so in that way it’s very comparable to setting up a golf course. They can apply oil in a way that promotes better scores, hence making the field of play easier.

    As for the difference in the fields, that’s actually the point I was trying to make. By allowing these marginal events to use super-low scores as a gimmick to grab attention, it’s diluting the impact that these scores should have.

    I’m not arguing that the game is getting too easy, I’m saying that these low scores are like a junkie getting a quick fix. Lots of headlines and attention are good in the short term for that week’s event, but long-term, the Tour needs to maintain its standards so that a 59 remains a magic number in sports.

  3. In the Media today (at least in the US) … its not a sport anymore, it always has to be entertainment. Golf is golf, not sure why everything has to be hyed or promoted for “the good of the game”.
    Todays equipment today needs to be more regulated so to return this game to its true form.

  4. Joe,I’m not arguing that the game is getting too easy, I’m saying that these low scores are like a junkie getting a quick fix. Lots of headlines and attention are good in the short term for that week’s event, but long-term, the Tour needs to maintain its standards so that a 59 remains a magic number in sports.Ron Varrial

    These 5 people who shot 59 shouldn’t be applauded as “the only lucky bastards who will ever get to do it” – because a bunch of opinionated snobs thought it would jepardize the grandeur of the sport if too many did it. Thats all I’m saying…

  5. Aren’t some of these scores done on Par 70’s? the problem with the 59 as an absolute is its relation to par. It is spoken of like 59 on a 72 is the same as 59 on a 70 and it is not. One being 13 under and one being 11 under. It still takes skill and it does give attention to venues and tournaments that might not get any at all. The press is an animal that likes one kind of food and this will always be.

  6. I agree with the article. I thought the same that the PGA was just trying to add some excitement now with Tiger not winning. It does cheapen the number seeing these marginal players making a mockery of the course. Also a 59 on a par 70 is just if not more impressive than on a 72. A par 70 has two less par 5 scoring . Thank god the greenbrier wasnt a par 72 or we would have had guys threatening 56

  7. @James: Whether the par for the course is 70 or 72 (or 80 or 60), the score of 59 is how many shots it took a player to play all 18 holes. If Greenbriar was par 72, the score would still be 59. Just -13 instead of -11.

  8. IMHO, it’s the drivers and the balls that have shrunk the courses. Twenty years ago with a Yonex and a two piece Top Flite, I was around 200 off the tee. I was a regular 16 handicap and could shot 79 on a really good day from the white tees (5900 yards).

    Now with a Taylor Made driver (with the trampoline effect) and a four piece Pro V1, I am around 225 off the tee. That’s two less clubs into every green. I am a regular 12 handicap and can shoot 75 on a really good day from the white tees.

    The blue tees at my course are 6600 yards which is too long for me since I can’t break 80 from the blues and it is more fun for me to have a chance to break 80.

    My course is 20 years old and it is not the architect’s fault that the ball goes farther. I think the PGA Tour should announce for its tournaments that balls that have higher than X velocity off a driver cannot be used. I would suggest that X should be around 160 mph for a swing speed of 115 mph, but I am open to other options on the numbers.

    The USGA and the R&A can do what they want, but the PGA Tour should take the lead and say that it has the authority to set the rules for its tournaments. Add two more clubs to every approach shot and I bet the scores would go up four shots a round.

  9. Holy did you just call Mark Buehrle a journey man? He has 145 wins at age 31 and is a 4 time all-star. I hope I just misunderstood your intent.

  10. Holy did you just call Mark Buehrle a journey man? He has 145 wins at age 31 and is a 4 time all-star. I hope I just misunderstood your intent.
    Hawk Harrelson

    Apologies to Buehrle fans. Wasn’t it a slight, just thought his career compares to Goydos. He’s been around a long time (10 years) for his sport, has always been a solid, if not spectacular, player. Yet he’s obviously known for having a flash of brilliance, hence the perfect gave vs. 59 comparison. Neither is a Hall of Famer, but they’re both good enough to stick around quite a while and make a nice career for themselves.

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