59 Watch: Is it getting easier to shoot 59 in professional golf?
PGA Tour

59 Watch: Is it getting easier to shoot 59 in professional golf?

jim-furyk-putting

Jim Furyk's 59 on Friday in the second round of the BMW Championship was the sixth sub-60 round in PGA Tour history, but it was the third such round in the last four years.

Combine that with the fact that Furyk's 59 was the third round of 59 in professional golf this year, and the immediate thought is that it's becoming easier to break 60 in professional golf.


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Is that true?

The changes in how the game are played would seem to suggest that the world's best have an easier task in breaking 59 than their forebears.

Technology -- ball and club -- helps the ball go further, stop quicker, spin more and roll better. Agronomy, especially compared to 25 or more years ago, is drastically different, giving pros preferred, tighter fairway lies and pure, fast putting surfaces that place an emphasis on getting the ball started on the right line as opposed to worrying as much about speed.

Even for all of those advances that help the elite professional, there have still only been four rounds of 59 on the PGA Tour in the last 15 years. Considering the number of total rounds played on the PGA Tour every season, just four rounds equates to way less than 1 percent of rounds. It's more like 0.0001 percent of rounds.

There have also been five rounds of 59 or better in the last 15 years on the Web.com Tour -- a pair in 1998, another in 2005 and two this season. The ratio of 59s to total rounds played is about the same as on the PGA Tour: infinitesimally small.

But it sure seems like the hashtag #59Watch gets thrown around an awful lot more in the past couple of years. Well, for one, the advent of Twitter as the ultimate companion to watching anything on TV makes it seem like the volume of potential sub-60 rounds has increased dramatically. Really, it's just the number of people listening and paying attention for the next 59 -- or better -- in golf. No one wants to miss that magic moment, so the smoke signal is often sent early. And that's all coming from someone who beats the 59 Watch drum as often as anybody.

That's the thing about 59 Watch: No matter how often someone threatens to break 60 with an incredible opening nine, almost every player fails to come through.

It turns out that breaking 60 is really tough to do. Someone has to play at least 11 under par for 18 holes, and that's on a par-70 track. Even if a player shoots 30 for nine holes, they have to repeat that and beat it by one for another nine holes to shoot 59. To crystalize the odds of that happening, there have only been 26 rounds that included a sub-30 front or back nine. Of those 26, only two players did it twice -- Charley Hoffman and Phil Mickelson.

The notion that 59 is getting signifcantly easier to attain, even though it is happening more often, is a ruse.

There have been 15 rounds of 59 or better on the worldwide major tours in the history of professional golf. All but two have happened in the last 15 years. But the truth about 59 is best explained not by the number of sub-60 rounds, but by the number of sub-61 rounds.

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In the history of the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Web.com Tour, Champions Tour, European Tour and Challenge Tour, there have been 86 rounds of 60 or better.

From 1951-57, there were eight on the PGA Tour. Then there wasn't another for 20 years, until the 1977 season when Al Geiberger became the original Mr. 59. It was another 11 years before any player, anywhere in the world shot 60 or better.

There were 10 rounds of 60 or better in the first seven years of the 1990s, including Chip Beck's 59 in Las Vegas.

Then, in 1997, something changed. The volume of sub-61 rounds went to a new level, with four rounds of 60 in professional golf. Since then, that has been the average number of sub-61 rounds in golf worldwide.

The watershed year, however, was 2004, when there were eight rounds of 60 in worldwide golf, but not a single 59. That means eight people would have been on 59 Watch had there been Twitter in '04. None of them sealed the deal.

Compare that 0-fer to 2010, when there were two rounds of 59 on the PGA Tour and three rounds of 60 worldwide. In that one year, it seemed like it was easier to shoot 59, primarily because those scores turned in by Paul Goydos and Stuart Appleby happened within a month of one another. The next year, six players shot 60 -- none broke into the 50s.

Before the late 1990s, a player truly threatening 59 was a rare thing. It could happen once per year, or once every couple of decades. Now, there are more players both shooting and threatening to shoot 59 in a given year, but the conversion rate is still incredibly low.

And despite the relative plague of 59s in golf, there still has never been one shot on the European Tour or the Champions Tour. Annika Sorenstam remains the only woman to break 60.

So while 59 Fever seems to have come over the game in the last decade and a half, it's still not an epidemic.

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