Golf’s magic ‘59’ becomes less elusive

This has been a season of low scores in professional golf.

Tiger Woods shot 61 at the WGC-Bridgestone. Phil Mickelson shot 60 at the Phoenix Open. Three players on the Tour shot 59, including former Clayton State player Will Wilcox. A teenager shot a 59 at this summer’s prestigious North and South Amateur at Pinehurst.

Then last week the low scores went a step deeper. Jim Furyk broke through with a 59 at the BMW Championship, the lowest score ever recorded in a FedEx Cup playoff event. He is only the sixth player to shoot 59 in a PGA Tour event, but the third in the last three years.

The rash of low scores raises the question about that gold standard of scoring in golf — the 59. Is it possible for golfers to assail that magical number in the same manner that runners did with the four-minute mile? Once considered to be unattainable, when Britain’s Roger Bannister broke that barrier in 1954, it lost its mystique. Now high school kids are threatening the mark.

Can the same thing be said for golf? Is the sport in store for a rash of scores in the 59s, or is this season an anomaly?

“It’s so easy, yeah,” Furyk scoffed after his round.

Not easy. But it could happen with increasing frequency.

“It essentially comes down to players starting to believe that it’s not such a big deal anymore,” said former PGA Tour winner and current Golf Channel announcer Notah Begay, who shot the first 59 on the Tour in 1998. “The score has lost its intimidation.”

Al Geiberger in 1977 became the first to shoot 59 in competition, earning him the nickname “Mr. 59.” It didn’t happen again until 1991 when Chip Beck did it in Las Vegas. David Duval shot his 59 in the final round of the 1999 Bob Hope Classic and eagled the final hole to punctuate his round.

There were two 59s in 2010. Paul Goydos did it in the first round of the John Deere Classic, and Stuart Appleby followed suit a few weeks later in the final round of the Greenbrier Classic, which he won.

Furyk’s came in the second round of the BMW Championship. He holed out a fairway shot for an eagle, survived a bogey, and made a 3-footer for birdie on the final hole to secure his piece of history.

If the sport is about to run into a spate of sub-60 scores, there could be several possible explanations: The players are better, the equipment is better and the courses are in such great condition that a low score is possible.

“It’s a convergence of many factors,” Begay said. “The quality of player is getting better, the number of high quality shots is increasing and the scores are getting lower. When you get players who are more accurate on golf courses that are manufactured to perfection, and they have shorter clubs to hit into the greens, it’s bound to happen.”

The equipment plays a large part in the low scores. Technology improves every year, and the touring professionals need only make a request from their equipment company to make any tweak they like. These guys have access to technicians who are available to make any alteration; they’re not buying off the rack at Dick’s Sporting Goods.

“Technology is a factor in that,” said University of Georgia graduate Brendon Todd, who will return to the PGA Tour for the 2013-14 season. “The ability to hit in longer and straighter is a factor. With technology as good as it is, you’ll see more guys creep toward 59.”

Not only does the newest generation of players have access to the latest in technological advances, they also bring a fearless attitude. They all grew up watching Tiger Woods on television and playing the video game that bears his name. There are few pins that they afraid to go after.

“You’ve got a lot of good players coming along who are fearless,” four-time PGA Tour winner Billy Andrade said. “They’re coming out bigger and stronger. What are you going to do? You can’t go back.”

The X-factor is course conditions. The PGA Tour rarely makes a stop at a venue that doesn’t feature near-perfect conditions, particularly with the greens, that encourage low scores. The move to shoes without metal spikes, as well as the development of new machinery to roll the greens flatter and faster, has helped keep scorers lower, too.

“The bottom line is it’s entertaining to see a lot of birdies,” Andrade said. “Across the board the courses are in great shape.”

Danny Elkins, the PGA professional at the Georgia Golf Center in Roswell, is one of the more respected instructors in the state. He doesn’t believe there will be a spate of 59s.

“A 59 is usually 13 under. It’s harder to go below that,” Elkins said. “When they broke the four-minute mile, it became harder and harder to lower it. Now when they break that record, it’s by fractions of a second. A 59 is about as close as you can get to perfection on a golf course.”

Now that Furyk is in the elite club, he’s not sure if it will become more commonplace.

“Am I surprised it hasn’t happened more often? Now it’s cool,” he said. “I like being one of the six. I don’t need seven. Six is fine with me. It’ll keep happening. It’ll keep happening. There’s too many talented players out here. You get on a roll on some good greens, you never know what’ll happen.”