Too Much of a Low Thing?

Are low scores on the PGA Tour hurt­ing the im­age of golf?

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - The Golf Life - By jaime daiz

Birdies are se­duc­tive. See­ing a lot of them can al­most make golf com­pare in ex­cite­ment to a T20 cricket match. Golf’s favourite stretch of holes is the back nine at Au­gusta Na­tional, where ea­gles can fly. Last year’s favourite ma­jor was the Open Championship, where Hen­rik Sten­son and Phil Mick­el­son made 14 birdies and an ea­gle be­tween them in a fi­nal-day show­down at Royal Troon.The scor­ing py­rotech­nics at Hazel­tine Na­tional last Septem­ber made the Ry­der Cup match es­pe­cially mem­o­rable.

Al­ready, 2017 has been marked by a flam­boy­ant burst of low scor­ing on the PGA Tour. Justin Thomas opened with a 59 at the Sony Open in Hawaii and won with an all-time 72-hole scor­ing record of 253. Nine days later, at the Ca­reer Builder Chal­lenge in Cal­i­for­nia, Adam Had­win shot the first 59 on a par 72 course (La Quinta) on the PGA Tour since David Du­val in 1999.

Of the now nine sub-60 rounds in PGA Tour his­tory, six have come since 2010, and three in the past six months, in­clud­ing Jim Furyk’s record 58. On the Tour last year, Ger­man pro Stephan Jaeger had a 58 in a 30-un­der 250 to­tal at the El­lie Mae Clas­sic.

Furyk’s was as close to a per­fect round as has ever been seen. He hit every fair­way and every green in reg­u­la­tion. Still, it didn’t gen­er­ate the ex­cite­ment of the first 59, by Al Geiberger in Mem­phis in 1977 (which, although played with pre­ferred lies, un­of­fi­cially fea­tured the same flaw­less tee-to-green stats). Thomas’ round got more buzz than Furyk’s, prob­a­bly be­cause he was just com­ing off a vic­tory at Ka­palua; his long-driv­ing young-man’s game; and be­cause he fin­ished with an ea­gle.

So the ques­tion arises: Is pro­fes­sional golf, what many pro ath­letes con­sider the most dif­fi­cult sport, get­ting too easy?

The an­swer lies in bal­ance. In any sport, there is dan­ger when the ex­cep­tional starts be­com­ing too com­mon­place. Ten­nis faced this with too many aces, and base­ball with too many home runs. Of­fi­cials slowed down the ball in both sports.

On the other hand, big-time sports com­pete to pro­vide en­ter­tain­ment in a cul­tural land­scape with an ex­po­nen­tially in­creased num­ber of choices. In golf, power is crowd-pleas­ing, but for the game to be truly com­pelling, it still must be ac­com­pa­nied by a pro’s most mes­meris­ing qual­ity: skill. Iron­i­cally, when birdies are too plen­ti­ful, it can work against the most skilled player as­sert­ing his ad­van­tage. That’s mainly why Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods avoided tour­na­ments con­sid­ered “birdie fests”.

But a clin­i­cal mea­sure­ment of skill is not al­ways fea­si­ble. As Tom Kite once said, if you wanted to find out the most skilled golfer, ev­ery­one would play with hickory shafts and gutta per­cha balls. Other than fresh air, golf as a spec­ta­tor ex­pe­ri­ence suf­fers in com­par­i­son to team sports. From an au­di­ence per­spec­tive, golf’s im­age as too hard and too slow has to be coun­tered.

Ac­cord­ingly, equip­ment lim­i­ta­tions have been mod­er­ate, al­low­ing play­ers to con­tinue to gain dis­tance and con­trol.The most valu­able in­no­va­tion might be por­ta­ble launch mon­i­tors that play­ers rou­tinely take to the prac­tice tee to help keep their swings in tune. Agro­nom­i­cal ad­vances make for flaw­less fair­way turf and im­pec­ca­ble putting sur­faces. Other than the ma­jors, the tour’s week-to-week course set­ups fea­ture light rough, rea­son­able green speeds and firm­ness, and only marginally hid­den pins. When the weather is be­nign, low scores fol­low.

Be­fore the Ca­reerBuilder, de­fend­ing cham­pion Ja­son Dufner noted the trend. “I think some of it goes into golf cour­ses that we’re play­ing now. Some of them are be­com­ing a

lit­tle too easy, dis­tance-wise, setup-wise,” he said. “I think the big­gest de­ter­rent to low scores is prob­a­bly a good amount of rough and firm, fast greens. Not rough where it’s hack-out, but where you lose con­trol. So I think that if the trend con­tin­ues, you’ll con­tinue to see a lot of low scores.”

An­other thing that is im­por­tant is the in­creas­ing num­ber of wedge ap­proaches play­ers are left with af­ter the now-rou­tine 300-plus-yard drive. It’s why many pros carry four wedges (two was once the stan­dard), usu­ally rang­ing from a 46-de­gree pitch­ing wedge to 60-de­gree lob wedge. With a wedge, a pro has his best chance of get­ting an ap­proach in­side 10 feet, the dis­tance where birdies are dis­pro­por­tion­ately con­verted. (Tour play­ers make 50 per­cent of eight-foot­ers, but the rate drops to 30 per­cent from 12 feet and down to 25 per­cent from 14 feet.)

Dufner said that at last year’s US Open at Oak­mont, Larry Nel­son told him when he won there in 1983, he hit 3-iron and 4-iron ap­proaches into the then-469-yard first hole. Dufner said he hit pitch­ing wedge into the now-482-yard hole in three of the rounds and sand wedge the other.The course was rain-soaked both years.

As Johnny Miller, whose 63 at Oak­mont in 1973 re­mains by con­sen­sus the great­est low round ever shot, said the day be­fore Had­win’s 59,“The only dis­ad­van­tage that Ex­cept that they re­ally aren’t, be­cause the clubs they’re hit­ting in are shorter.”

Miller notes that when he was shoot­ing 61s in back-to-back weeks while win­ning in Phoenix and Tuc­son in 1975,“my av­er­age ap­proach club was 6-iron through 8-iron. Very oc­ca­sion­ally, a pitch­ing wedge, al­most never a sand wedge.Way more 4-irons into par 4s than wedges.”

He con­tin­ued, know­ingly tread­ing into po­lar­is­ing “our era was bet­ter” ter­ri­tory. “There are more good play­ers now, and with all the ad­vances, it’s a good time to be a pro golfer. I don’t think I’m liv­ing in the past to say it used to be harder to be good. You add ev­ery­thing up, and I’m sur­prised there haven’t been more 59s.”

If they keep com­ing, it might be most due to the mental fac­tor. Just as four min­utes stopped be­ing a magic num­ber for the mile run af­ter Roger Ban­nis­ter broke the bar­rier in 1954, 59 isn’t quite as mag­i­cal in golf. Had­win said as much when he de­scribed his late-round mind­set: “If any­thing, I was think­ing 58.”

Per­haps the play­ers are catch­ing up to a mo­ment when an ad­just­ment will be needed, sim­i­lar to how course set­ups got no­tice­ably longer and tougher in the 1960s and 1970s af­ter sev­eral scor­ing records were es­tab­lished on short park­land cour­ses in the 1940s and 1950s (from 1951-’57, seven dif­fer­ent play­ers shot 60).

It’s not dif­fi­cult to make tour­na­ment cour­ses harder, and it will prob­a­bly hap­pen even­tu­ally. But we are far from crit­i­cal mass, or any sort of back­lash.The birdie hasn’t been de­val­ued. Un­til fur­ther no­tice, rounds in the 50s will have much more up­side than down. For now, may they keep com­ing.

New young star Justin Thomas, 23, won the first two PGA tour­na­ments of the year in Hawaii, and was 49-un­der-par for eight rounds, in­clud­ing a 59 in the Sony Open.

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