By Sam Belden
As any weekend warrior will tell you, golf is still plenty difficult, but for the game’s top pros, it keeps getting easier and easier. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at all the sub-60 rounds that have been popping up over the past year.
First, there was Stephan Jaeger of Germany, who fired an opening 58 to go wire-to-wire at the Web.com Tour’s Ellie Mae Classic last July. Less than a month later, Jim Furyk, already with a 59 on his resume, made history for a second time. On a hot day at TPC River Highlands, the Pennsylvania native outdid himself, shooting the first 58 in PGA Tour history and rocketing into fifth place for the week.
As if that wasn’t enough, the 2016-17 season has only yielded more of these dynamite scores. Two weeks ago, budding superstar Justin Thomas uncorked a magical 59 during the opening round of the Sony Open in Hawaii. He chased it with a 64 and two weekend 65s to cruise to a seven-stroke victory. Then, just last week, Canada’s Adam Hadwin enjoyed the round of his life at the appropriately named CareerBuilder Challenge, circling 13 birdies to post a 59 of his own. He closed with a 70 and ended up in second place, just one stroke behind winner Hudson Swafford.
At this rate, two out of every three PGA Tour events in 2017 will feature a round of 59. That’s obviously not going to happen, but it serves as an illustration of just how much more frequently occurring these uber-low scores have become.
This is significant because shooting a round of 59 used to be one of the rarest achievements in all of golf — no, really, it’s true. Prior to 2010, only three players had ever posted one in an official PGA Tour event: Al Geiberger in 1977, Chip Beck in 1991 and David Duval in 1999. That number has more than doubled in the past seven years, however — first with Paul Goydos and Stuart Appleby in 2010, then with Furyk, Thomas and Hadwin in the ensuing seasons.
Note the diversity of the players mentioned above, especially the most recent ones. Thomas is a terrific overall player, but he’s at his most menacing with a driver in his hands. Furyk makes the bulk of his money with his irons, while Hadwin is a short game specialist.
All of this suggests that the game is changing, and not for the better. Equipment has long been referred to as golf’s great equalizer, but how much innovation is too much innovation? When pros light up easy courses for 59s, then they light up major courses for 63s — which is exactly what we saw at The Open Championship at Royal Troon last summer. I’m all for birdies, but when the game’s most prestigious tournaments no longer truly challenge the players, then there’s a problem.
It’s not just that the bombers are taking over the game — Hadwin and Furyk’s sub-60 scores show that with the help of modern equipment, anyone can be long enough to torch a course. These rounds are incredible to watch, but make no mistake — they are the symptom of a growing issue in the game of golf.