Better players, better rounds will equal more 59s

Aug 5th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

AKRON, Ohio — An elderly woman, pre-teen boy and middle-aged man all lined up in the throng behind the ninth green at Firestone Country Club on Wednesday, hoping to get a line on the flavor of the moment in global golf.

Or a line from him, anyway.

Aussie Stuart Appleby, who won three days earlier in incandescent fashion with a record-tying 59 in the final round, was happily scribbling autographs with a Sharpie pen for anybody who asked. Somewhat surprisingly, given the magnitude of his accomplishment, he wasn’t adding the game’s most hallowed digits alongside his name.

“Naw,” Appleby said with a laugh. “Not unless they ask me to.”

Have 59s have become passé already?

Appleby last weekend became the second player in a month to match the lowest score in PGA Tour history, raising a series of topical questions about the swatches of red ink on scoreboards and whether golf’s most hallowed number has been diminished.

Just like that, going sub-60 doesn’t mean what it used to.

“Probably not, probably not,” Tiger Woods said Wednesday. “Because I think it’s easier to get to now. It’s more attainable.”

The easier part is somewhat debatable. The attainable element, based on recent scoring, is inarguable.

Over the past month, Paul Goydos and Appleby became the fourth and fifth players ever to reach scoring nirvana — it had been a long drought since David Duval last matched the feat in early 1999 — and now mathematical manna is falling from heaven on a weekly basis.

The near misses have been piling up even faster. Players aren’t just flirting with 59, they are French-kissing it. Veterans Carl Pettersson, Steve Stricker and J.B. Holmes each have shot 60 in the same four-tournament span, taking full advantage of improved equipment, idyllic scoring conditions and the removal a decades-old barrier that no longer carries as much psychological sway. Indeed, Woods cited most of those issues when putting the feeding frenzy of the past month into some crazy context at the Bridgestone Invitational on Wednesday.

“I think it goes to how much further the golf ball is going and how much better the equipment and the players have become,” Woods said. “[The ball] doesn’t move as much as it used to.”

It scoots into the hole just fine.

It’s not just in PGA Tour circles, either. A teenage kid last week shot 57 in a junior event in Alabama and England’s Ross Fisher, who won the Irish Open on Sunday, shot a 61 and parred the last four holes, missing a pair of putts from inside 10 feet in the last stretch. D.A. Points, who has never won on the PGA Tour, shot 61 in the third round last week at the Greenbrier Classic when a birdie-par finish would have given him a 59 as well.

“Two in the last three weeks, and before that three in the lifetime of the tour,” Ernie Els said. “You know, I don’t know if the tour is trying to get some people to watch television again because they’re seeing a lot of birdies, and we’ve all said maybe birdies help viewership. “But I’m not sure what my take is. It’s starting to look like the Nationwide Tour, you know?”

We know. The tour’s stance is that little has changed in the week-to-week manipulation of the golf courses, although the rough this year has been lowered at many venues to tempt players into attacking flags with new grooves that, in many instances, cause so-called fliers that sail over the green.

“There has been no change in setup philosophy,” tour rules official Steve Rintoul said. “None, zero.”

Of course, nobody in Ponte Vedra Beach is complaining that Appleby’s feat was splashed all over SportsCenter on Sunday night.

“We’re in the entertainment business in a way, after all, right?” Rintoul said.

It’s been invigorating, for sure. Middle-tier events like the Greenbrier and John Deere have become international focal points after the scintillating play at those sites by Goydos and Appleby, respectively. The Deere is played in a par-71 layout and the Greenbrier’s Old White Course was a short par-70. The first three 59s in tour annals were recorded on traditional par-72 tracks, Woods noted.

“Granted, they’re still extremely low rounds, but you know, it’s a little different deal getting to 10 under than it is to 13,” he said. “It’s a big, big difference.”

Both the John Deere and Greenbrier tracks were soft because of rain during the early portion of the week. Other than burying pins in corners of greens and pushing back tee markers, there’s little anybody can do to offset the deluge of scoring that inviably follows. Whether they should even bother is another issue entirely.

Jim Justice, who owns the Greenbrier resort, admitted afterward that he wanted to see more low numbers in an attempt to attract more fans, who generally enjoy seeing birdies. One U.S. Open per year is probably enough, although the holder of that particular title believes 59s have suddenly become pedestrian and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

“It certainly takes the shine off the number, doesn’t it?” Graeme McDowell said. “When Duval did it at the Bob Hope all those years ago, it was just super special. Yeah, it’s starting to appear more often. If someone does it this week, we’re starting to get a pattern emerging. I think maybe guys are not so scared of it anymore.”

When Goydos posted the 59 in the first round of the Deere, followed five hours later by Stricker’s 60, he said that a Roger Bannister threshold was still prevalent in the game, a psychological barrier that causes players to think, then blink. Three weeks later, not so much.

A sort of group hysteria has set in. No knock on Goydos, a solid pro with two career wins, but if he can do it, a hundred other guys with comparable tool boxes are wondering why they can’t mirror the feat.

“We all have these performance thresholds,” said Gio Valiante, a sports psychologist for several top players, including Appleby. “When Bannister finally broke the four-minute mile, it fell a half-dozen more times in the next few months.”

As a result, Valiante predicted that it won’t take 11 years for another player to break 60. In fact, it might not take 11 more days, depending on the venue and weather.

“No question about it, it’s contagious,” he said. “I think you will see more of it.”

The evidence certainly supports that claim. Even before the current red-number reverie, Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa shot 58 in a sanctioned Japan Tour event May 2.

American star Anthony Kim, known to go low himself at times, has been sidelined the past three months with a wrist issue. Look what he missed.

“I guess everyone has gotten a lot better,” Kim cracked, “since I’ve been away.”

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