Saturday, July 30, 2016

The new normal in professional golf


SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Golf has changed, and there’s litany evidence to prove it.

It started with Jordan Spieth winning the 2015 Masters at 18-under 270, matching Tiger Woods’ 72-hole scoring record and smashing the 36- and 54-hole scoring marks on the way. Spieth, in fact, reached 19 under par, but surrendered a shot on the final hole.

Despite fierce wind, that July, the Old Course didn’t stand a chance against the best in the world. Zach Johnson won a three-man playoff commenced with him, David Lingmerth and Marc Leishman at 15 under par.

A month later, Day, who came up a shot shy of that playoff, won the PGA Championship at a record 20 under par, taking advantage of a rain-softened Whistling Straits to post the lowest total to par in a major championship.

Henrik Stenson matched that feat two weeks ago at the British Open, shooting 20-under 264 for the lowest total to par and lowest aggregate score in major history. He closed with 63, bookending second-place Phil Mickelson’s 63 — it probably should’ve been a 62 — to mark the second time in major history that two 63s were fired at a major in the same week.

As that all was unfolding, a player on the European Challenge Tour, their equivalent of the Tour, shot 59, the second in that tour’s history. Stephan Jaeger did one better on Thursday on the Tour, shooting the first 58 in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event after five 59s on that tour, one on PGA Tour Champions and six on the PGA Tour.

Mirim Lee opened the U.S. Women’s Open with 64, then this week at the Women’s British Open, started with 10-under 62. That’s one shy of Hyo Joo Kim’s record-setting 61 in the 2014 Evian Championship.

Then on Friday, Robert Streb entered the burgeoning 63 in a Major Club, becoming the third guy in 16 days to accomplish the feat. He’s also the third guy in four years to shoot 63 in the PGA Championship, joining Jason Dufner in 2013 at Oak Hill and Hiroshi Iwata last year. Steve Stricker also shot 63 at Atlanta Athletic Club in 2011.

Had enough?

The point is that there are more and more outliers of great scoring in the majors, to the point that it’s becoming more the norm than the oddity. It’s a matter of when, not if, someone will shoot 62 in a major. It seems like 20 under par isn’t some mythical number in majors, reserved only for the John Deere Classics of the world of professional golf. And if it rains at a major, forget about it. These players hit it too far and too straight to be challenged in the compromise of less run-out for more receptive putting surfaces. It’s lawn darts.

The question is if that’s a bad thing. People love birdies and eagles. Fans routinely complain when they watch their favorite golfers squirm and struggle at the U.S. Open, tricked up to bring a golf course to the edge of playability. PGA Tour officials unintentionally did that to TPC Sawgrass in May, prompting what amounted to an apology for the conditions.

The R&A and the PGA of America don’t much care about par. After all, par doesn’t matter in a golf tournament. Whoever has the lowest total number of strokes win, and assigning any arbitrary figure to par doesn’t change that. They set up their majors fairly and let Mother Nature dictate the winning score. However, when Mother Nature conspires against firm and fast course conditions, the best players in the world pounce. There doesn’t seem to be a golf course long enough.

“It’s par 70, but it’s quite long. I feel like I wear out my 8- and 9-iron on the par 4s,” he said Tuesday. “And then the par 3s are fairly long, too. I hit a lot of 5-irons it feels like.”

Granted, Johnson is an athletic freak with scary length, but he’s not the only one. Even for his relatively shorter peers, they’re wearing out 7- and 8-irons this week, maybe 6-irons into many of the greens. Off the tee, the longer hitters are pounding 3-woods and driving irons nearly 300 yards. This is a deformed brand of golf, one that erodes some of the skill required to play well.

The reality is there are a lot of factors that have made golf easier — and not just for the pros. The golf ball goes farther than ever (despite the USGA’s protestations), and golf equipment grows incrementally more efficient every year. That’s a tip of the hat to equipment makers. They’re doing their jobs well. The problem is that golf equipment and improved player fitness have combined to overwhelm an increasing number of championship courses, rendering them obsolete to exclusion or indifference.

Short of turning every course into 18 holes surrounded by a fortress of foot-high grass and quicksand — a U.S. Open gone through the Russian Olympic program — the only thing that can put a long-iron in these players’ hands even a little more often is massive distance.

We’ll have that theory put to the test next June when the U.S. Open arrives to Erin Hills in Wisconsin for the first time. Though the USGA has said it won’t tip out the course, the maximum length there is close to 8,000 yards, unprecedented for a major championship. If a course that length, under the USGA’s care, can’t flummox the best in the world, then no course on this planet truly can. And, if that’s the case, then we need to either start building ones that can, or the game’s governing bodies need to identify the problem, roll back equipment for professionals and inject more skill back into the game.

Ryan Ballengee is a Yahoo Sports contributor. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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