It has come to this:
Scottie Scheffler shot 59 Friday morning in the second round of the Northern Trust at TPC Boston and two things came immediately to mind.
Good for him.
And, wonder if Dustin Johnson, who had a putt to shoot 26 on his first nine and was 11-under par through 11 holes a few hours later, might leave Scheffler with the second-best score of the day.
The most surprising thing wasn’t what Scheffler did, nor what Johnson almost did.
The most surprising thing was how the sense of awe surrounding 59 has started to fade.
It used to be golf’s version of breaking the 4-minute mile or stretching the frontier the way landing men on the moon once captivated us. As someone who is old enough to remember the world stopping when men initially walked on the moon, I also remember how it became almost routine for a time, the element of wonder remarkably dimmed somehow by the frequency of it happening.
That’s what has happened with shooting 59 in golf.
It’s still spectacular, still rare enough that it produces a sense of drama as players get closer to going sub-60. But it’s happened often enough now that it feels, well, familiar.
For decades we knew Al Geiberger as “Mr. 59” because he was golf’s Roger Bannister. Then Chip Beck did it and then David Duval did it. Three times in 33 years before it happened again.
That says something about where the game is today and raises the enduring question of whether it’s better or worse than it was.
The players are better. The equipment is better. The physical training is better. The golf courses are in better condition. And that has made the achievement of shooting 59 more commonplace while also demystifying it.
That’s the problem. It feels like everyone is doing it. They’re not, obviously, but what once took decades to happen now occurs with some regularity. It’s still hashtag-worthy (#59watch) but chances are you can’t name all the players who’ve done it now.
Who was the last player to do it before Scheffler?
It was Kevin Chappell at the Greenbrier last year. To be honest, I thought it was Brandt Snedeker at the Wyndham Championship two years ago. It shouldn’t be that hard to remember.
Scheffler, meanwhile, became the 11th PGA Tour player to shoot 59 or better in competition (Jim Furyk has shot both 58 and 59, making Scheffler’s round the 12th sub-60 round in PGA Tour history).
Through 2009, there had been only three sub-60 rounds posted. Now there’s been at least one each of the past five years.
It’s not a question of why it’s happening now. It’s a question of whether the game accepts it or reacts to it.
Until something happens to the contrary, it’s the new normal, which is a phrase I dislike almost as much as I dislike “It is what it is,” but that’s another discussion.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of the problem, but when Brandon Grace became the first player to shoot 62 in a major championship three years ago at Royal Birkdale, the ground didn’t shake. It had been coming for a while and it finally happened. There was a sense of inevitability to it and Grace happened to be the player who broke the tape.
What happens if, in the summer of 2022, the Old Course at St. Andrews is incapable of defending itself anymore? They’ve already built tees off property in a desperate attempt to hold off what today’s players can do and a couple of soft Scottish days could have us eulogizing what has been lost forever.
No one is advocating a return to balata balls and persimmon woods. The game remains as vexing to most of us as it ever has but at its highest levels it’s become easier to dominate even the best courses.
There are ways to set up courses that, barring soft greens and no wind, make it harder to shoot super low scores but growing shin-deep rough along the edges of skinny fairways takes some of the flair away. There is an art to playing recovery shots that pitch-out rough eliminates.
Almost everything evolves and golf is no exception. Ben Hogan played a different game than Bobby Jones just as Tiger Woods has played a different game than Jack Nicklaus. Part of the game’s charm is the ability to look across the ages and see both the similarities and the differences in how the best and the rest of us have grappled with its maddening magic.
We’re never going back to the days when hitting it 280 off the tee made a player a bomber, but watching Bryson DeChambeau routinely fly tee shots 325 or more yards creates the feeling that the game has tilted away from how it was meant to be played. Power should always be an advantage but absolute power may turn more into less.
Arguments about distance will persist as they have for decades. Maybe the game’s leaders will act to restrict its inexorable increases. Maybe they won’t.
Give the best players the best conditions and the best equipment and they can do wondrous things. That’s the way it should be.
But when the sense of wonder begins to dim, it’s natural to wonder what is being lost.