Going 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?