Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 1, 2010

The Dangers Of Performance Enhancing Engineering

To the USGA, par is a sacred number. The men in the blue jackets will tweak courses in any way possible to make certain that par is difficult to achieve, sometime impossibly so, at their championships. Thus Graeme McDowell won this year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach with a four day total of 284, level par. Paula Creamer won the USGA’s Women’s Open at Oakmont with a three under 281, the only player under par. Just three years ago, Angel Cabrera won his second major on the same course in the 2007 men’s Open, with a final score of five over par.

But on the rest of the PGA Tour, week in and week out, par is not so adamantly defended. Fairways are not so narrow, rough is not so deep, and greens are not so slick. Increasingly, professional golfers are making the courses not set up by the USGA look like they should have windmills and a finishing hole where the goal is to put the ball in the clown’s nose.

In 1977, Al Geiberger became the first man to shoot 59 in tournament play when he did so in the second round of the Memphis Classic. It took fourteen years for the feat to be duplicated, this time by Chip Beck in the third round of the 1991 Las Vegas Invitational. Eight years after that David Duval recorded the third 59 at a PGA event in the final round of the Bob Hope tournament in Palm Springs. Each of these events was widely and justifiably celebrated. As the first to accomplish the feat, Geiberger was forever after nicknamed “Mr. 59.”

But these days the tournament that doesn’t have some ridiculously low scores is the exception rather than the rule. Last month at the John Deere Classic journeyman Paul Goydos fired a 12 under par 59 in the opening round. Later that same day Steve Stricker nearly matched him by shooting 60. Goydos opened with a 59, shot three more rounds in the mid-60’s, and lost the tournament by two strokes, as Stricker nearly matched his opening 60 with a third round 62 on his way to victory.

Just two weeks after Goydos and Stricker put on their show, Sweden’s Carl Pettersson fired a third round 60 and went on to win the Canadian Open. Then yesterday golf fans came within a whisker of seeing a pair of 59’s. In the third round of the Greenbrier Classic, played at the historic West Virginia resort, first J.B. Holmes posted a 60. But to get to that number he had to burn the cup with an eagle putt on the 17th hole before settling for birdie. Had that putt been just a fraction to the left, Holmes would have had a 59. Two hours later, D.A. Points came to the same hole fresh off a birdie at the 16th that had moved him to ten under par. The 17th on the Old White Course at the Greenbrier is a reachable par 5, a birdie hole. Had Points birdied the hole as expected and made par at the last, he would have had the fifth 59 in PGA Tour history. But with visions of just that no doubt dancing in his head, Points put his second shot into a greenside bunker, hit weakly onto the green, and then three-putted for an unlikely bogey. Still, a 60 and a 61 aren’t exactly embarrassing scores.

However, just as was the case with Goydos, they also weren’t good enough scores to lead to victory. That’s because today Australian Stuart Appleby, who started the final round seven shots adrift, was six under on the front nine, eagled the twelfth hole, and then birdied the final three to shoot what else, 59.

This deluge of low scoring is the clearest proof yet that modern engineering is making more and more golf courses obsolete for tournament play. Every piece of golf equipment is affected. It’s not just titanium drivers with adjustable weighting, massive heads and equally large sweet spots or cavity-back irons with extreme perimeter weighting that launch the ball into the sky. It’s the balls themselves, designed in countless varieties for every imaginable swing speed and type. It’s even gloves that provide tackier grips in all sorts of weather conditions and shoes that enhance a player’s stability.

For the casual golfer willing to pay the often considerable price for the latest equipment, these technological advances make the game more fun and give the hacker a fighting chance against his local course. But in the hands of professionals the same technology leaves too many courses simply overmatched.

While this season’s scoring has brought the issue to the fore, it’s been coming for a while. Last year old Tom Watson thrilled golf fans as he turned back the clock and led the Open Championship at Turnberry on Scotland’s west coast right up to the 72nd hole. Turnberry was the site of Watson’s second victory at the Open in 1977. That was the year of his famous “duel in the sun” against Jack Nicklaus on the tournament’s final day. On the final hole of that tournament, Watson found himself in the fairway, 180 yards from the 18th green. Inclined to hit a 6-iron, Watson was talked into hitting a 7 by his caddie, who correctly guessed that the golfer would have plenty of adrenaline pumping to make up for the shorter club. The shot famously came to rest two feet from the pin, sealing Watson’s victory. More than three decades later and less than two months short of his sixtieth birthday, Watson again stood in Turnberry’s 18th fairway, once more 180 yards from the flag. But whatever time had taken away from him, technology more than made up for. This time he hit an 8-iron, one club less than he had hit in the prime of his youth. And he hit it over the green.

Both the PGA Tour and the rules makers at the USGA and R&A have always been loath to set up a two-track system of equipment specifications, a more stringent one for professionals and a more lenient one for amateurs. But since professional tournaments ought to be more than mere putting contests, it may be time to rethink that position. Otherwise the Tour may soon find itself playing only at courses that are 7,500 yards or longer; and when the U.S. Open comes to venerable old 6,800 yard Merion Golf Club in 2013, the only way for the USGA to protect par may involve fairways the width of sidewalks and rough high enough to hide small children.

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