The Assault on Par took a turn towards the absurd last week. The golf world can officially retire the #59Watch given that at least one golfer either achieved the feat or flirted with it Thursday through Sunday.
The fact that Justin Thomas was the only one in Hawaii to achieve it was probably the best-case scenario for the game, other than Jordan Spieth firing it. The hype machine is in full force for Thomas, giving the 59 more attention last week because of how spectacularly he’s been playing. But, has the sub-60 round lost it’s allure?
Professional touring golf (the beginning of the PGA Tour) traces its roots back to 1929. It took 48 years for somebody to break 60. After Al Geiberger did it in Memphis in 1977, it would be 14 years until it was done again, by Chip Beck in 1991. It took only eight more years for David Duval’s 59 at the old Hope. Today, it’s almost become an annual tradition.
As this site tracks, there have been 22 sub-60 rounds in various levels of worldwide professional golf. Of those, 13 have taken place this decade. When Stephen Jaeger and Jim Furyk each found their way to 58 last summer, simply breaking 60 wasn’t good enough for immortality. A 57 is coming soon. Book it.
If you trust the Twitter polling of the Golf Channel, fans are okay with it. Fifty-one percent of nearly 2,700 respondents said that more low scores is good for the game, with another 29 percent saying there is no impact, positively or negatively.
Sure, lower scores are exciting, but are people watching? Most low rounds are shot early in the day, when conditions are more benign. It’s hard to capitalize on the surge of low scores when the television broadcast windows haven’t started.
For instance, Thomas was off the course when Golf Channel came on the air for the first round of the Sony Open. The coverage registered 251,000 viewers. The same day in 2016? Slightly less, 218,000 eyeballs. Did JT’s Assault of Par relate to a 15-percent increase in viewership? Maybe.
One thing that is certain is that players still value a sub-60 round as much as ever.
“I haven't shot 58 yet, so 59 is 59 for me,” Chez Reavie said over the weekend, after flirting with his own 59 on Sunday. “You see guys do it and you know it's possible. Once you start making putts and you get some looks, it's definitely exciting.”
While Thomas look subdued throughout his round, and even in his celebration, he almost seemed vindicated for accomplishing something that he was close to achieving before.
“I think when one person does something, it pushes us more,” Thomas said. “Like a lot of the young guys, we don't have any fear. We expect to play well. We expect to do well… Any time you're in history in any sport or whatever you're doing, it's a good thing. We all know it's the magical number in golf.”
The players still think it’s magical, but more and more now find themselves chasing 57 the way generations longed for 59.
“I guess had I never shot 59 before, I probably would have been thinking 59, the barrier,” Furyk said last year after his 58 at the Travelers Championship.
The barrier is gone for many. How low will they go?
The Other Winner
Each week during the PGA Tour season, I will offer up one player who, while not winning, escaped unnoticed with a big finish.
Justin Rose – While he got plenty of air time and attention finishing second at Waialae, a full lap back of Thomas, that was more than a sporty 2017 debut for the 13th-ranked player in the world. Rose took 12 weeks off last fall to rest a back injury, and it flared up on him again at the Hero World Challenge.
He played five competitive rounds of golf over the span of four months and came out firing in Hawaii. He was second in the field in proximity to the hole, and trailed only the winner in strokes gained off the tee. Looking to bank off of that Olympic gold medal, the solo runner-up finish by Rose was the best calendar-year start of his career since 2001, and the best ever finish in his opening PGA Tour start.