Cracking the 60-shot barrier

Cracking the 60-shot barrier

After Adam Hadwin broke the 60-stroke mark at the par-72 La Quinta Country Club in California last month, he likened the feat to running the mile in under four minutes.

“Nobody said it could be broken,” he said, “and then one person broke it, and now it’s a routine thing, right?”

The analogy fits, but not as neatly as a golfer’s glove. In the 63 years since Roger Bannister clocked a mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds, more than 1,000 runners, including a handful of American high schoolers, have broken four minutes. And while Hadwin’s 59 in the third round of the CareerBuilder Challenge was the second such score in a nine-day span, after Justin Thomas’ opening 59 at the Sony Open, it was only the ninth sub-60 score recorded on the PGA Tour. Al Geiberger first broke the mark in 1977.

Meanwhile, 32 players have combined for 34 rounds of 60 on the PGA Tour. Since Geiberger made history, technology has transformed the game, with the most prodigious drivers of the ball averaging 40 yards farther off the tee than the longest hitters 40 years ago. And yet, Geiberger’s score remains the gold standard, though Jim Furyk surpassed even that with a closing 58 at the par-70 TPC River Highlands course.

Why haven’t more golfers breezed through the door that Geiberger cracked open? Why does there remain, as Phil Mickelson described it, “a Berlin Wall barrier” between a 60 and a 59?

Geoff Ogilvy of Australia, a former US Open champion, said: “Running is constant. A mile is always a mile, but every golf course is different, and the same golf course is different every day.”

Ogilvy, who opened with a 1-under 70 at the Phoenix Open, added, “I don’t know if any other sport has a comparison to it, really. It is a magic number, but it’s only because it starts with a five.”

Jordan Spieth agreed. Spieth, who was grouped with Thomas when he shot his 59 last month, suggested that if Bannister’s run redefined what the human body could accomplish physically, a sub-60 score remained a formidable mental barrier for golfers.

Spieth, who opened with a 1-under 70, said, “To be able to continue to push yourself and continue to hit the shots necessary, and not really be a human for the rest of that round and not have the flaws in your brain, and stay dead-focused on continuing to make that lower and lower and lower and being OK with that and embracing that is so tough.”

Tell Mickelson about it. Mickelson, the best golfer to come out of Arizona State, won his third Phoenix Open title in 2013 after opening with a 60 on the par-71 course. His birdie attempt on the final hole lipped out, which haunts him to this day. He is “still in disbelief” that his putt for 59 failed to fall, he said. “You don’t get those opportunities very often,” he added.

Like Mickelson in his first round in 2013, Brendan Steele started on the back side and made the turn in 6-under 30 to trigger a 59 watch. The electricity on the grounds only intensified when Steele sank a 13-foot birdie putt on the first, improving to 7-under.

But on the second, he made a bogey after his drive found a fairway bunker and his second shot landed in a greenside bunker, and that was the end of his bid for a 59. He finished at 65, tied for second with the defending champion Hideki Matsuyama, one stroke behind Matt Kuchar.

Mickelson made his first of 28 starts in this tournament in 1989, four years before Thomas was born. Hadwin, 29, of Canada, was 4 years old when Mickelson won the first of his Phoenix Open titles.

The 46-year-old Mickelson has 42 PGA Tour victories, including five major championships, but said he was “envious” of the 59s by Thomas, a four-time Tour winner, and Hadwin, a two-time champion on the Web.com Tour. “I really am,” Mickelson said.

Thomas said, “There are not many things I have on Phil.” He smiled and added, “I will make sure to remind him.” After his 59, Hadwin’s average score in his next five rounds was a 71.4. Thomas averaged 64.7 in his next three. Referring to his 59, Thomas said: “I have always felt like I have been a person that can get pretty hot, and when I get it going, I can shoot some low scores. I guess it just kind of validated that a little bit.”

Throughout the years, courses have been tightened and toughened to combat the advances made in the equipment. So to make 13 birdies, as Hadwin did in his round of 59, is still absurdly difficult, said Ogilvy, who in 30 years as a golfer has never had a putt to break 60. “There aren’t that many golfers who know what it’s like to have a chance,” Ogilvy said, adding, “A 59 is just one of the cool things we have in sport.”

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