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Shooting 59 ain't what it used to be

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Fifty-nine used to be golf’s magic number. When Al Geiberger recently watched some long-lost video of his 59 at the 1977 Memphis Classic, he grew very emotional. Annika Sorenstam, the only woman to post 59 on the LPGA, has branded herself “Ms. 59.”

Maybe the number is still magic, but it’s becoming more the pull-a-nickel-from-behind-someone’s-ear magic than the locking-yourself-in-a-vault-at-the-bottom-of-the-sea magic.

The latest installment of “How Low Can They Go?” occurred at the Web.com Tour’s Boise Open this past week, as Russell Knox posted a 59 in the second round, the result of a two-eagle, eight-birdie performance that looked curiously simple on paper, his flawless scorecard interrupted by eight measly pars.

If the tale sounds familiar, that’s because Knox’s 59 came a dozen days after Will Wilcox shot the same score on the same tour. In the aftermath of the most recent 59, responses on Twitter ranged from the enthusiastic (“Wow! That’s awesome!”) to the skeptical (“Are they playing from the ladies’ tees?”) to one observer who made a brilliant analogy.

“It’s like the four-minute mile,” this tweeter suggested.

No further explanation needed.

Roger Bannister first broke the magic mark on May 6, 1954. His record lasted just 46 days. These days, four-minute miles are recorded by middle-schoolers hopping backward on one leg – or something like that. The impossible dream has become routine.

We haven’t reached such territory when it comes to shooting 59 … yet. In fact, despite the relative outbreak of sub-60 scores, it still reeks of impossible dream connotations.

Earlier this year, after leaving a putt for 59 hanging on the lip at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Phil Mickelson explained, “Well, 60 is awesome. But there's a big difference between 60 and 59. Not that big between 60 and 61, there really isn't. But there's a big barrier, a Berlin Wall barrier, between 59 and 60.”

All of which should lead to one question in light of not only more 59s, but more 60s, 61s and 62s and even a 56 (more on that one later) that is efficiently simple yet utterly complicated.

Why?

The answers are numerous and, frankly, each has some merit without any taking full credit.

Players are bigger, stronger and more athletic these days…

… except Wilcox and Knox weigh in at a listed 160 and 155 pounds, respectively.

Players have the benefit of more technological advances…

… which is true in comparison with Geiberger’s era, but certainly not on a week-to-week, month-to-month basis.

(When Stuart Appleby recorded the fifth 59 in PGA Tour history at The Greenbrier Classic three years ago – a mere four weeks after Paul Goydos recorded the fourth 59 at the John Deere Classic – he recalled seeing equipment from Sam Snead’s round of 59 on the same course more than a half-century earlier: “There's the ball and the club, and you're like, ‘How did he do that?’ I shouldn't say 59 is easy today, but easier than back then.”)

Players are competing on relatively easier courses …

… though the Boise Open was contested on 6,698-yard, par-71 Hillcrest Country Club, which played closer to 6,500 yards with the altitude, tournament courses in general feature tighter fairways and faster greens than those of previous generations.

Players now have advanced mental training and aren’t afraid to go low …

… and there’s actually something to this notion.

Listen to what Knox said after holing a 7-foot par putt to clinch the 59 and it sounds like something straight out of an upper-level sports psychology class.

'I told myself I had no choice but to make this putt,' he explained. 'Missing wasn't an option. I'd convinced myself that I'd already made it. It was right in the middle. Never in doubt.'

The truth is, it is some conglomeration of all of the above – bigger, stronger players; technological advancements; some easier course setups; and advanced mental training – which has led to the proliferation of super-low scores.

Oh, and about that 56: It was produced by mini-tour player Jesse Massie, who posted a 67 in a tournament round at Glenmary Golf Course in Louisville, Ky., last week, then later in the day played a non-competitive round on the same track and recorded one eagle and 14 birdies.

Sort of makes the 59 posted by 16-year-old Will Grimmer two weeks earlier on Pinehurst No. 1 pale in comparison.

We may never get to the point where middle-schoolers are hopping backward on one leg en route to posting sub-60 totals, but there’s no doubt that these scores are becoming more of a trend.

What can be done to stop them? More tournaments on par-72 courses? More heavy winds from Mother Nature? More – in the parlance of Ian Poulter – clown faces and windmills on the greens?

None of those are credible possibilities, so the best answer may be to simply sit back and enjoy the ride. Magic shows are supposed to be fun, after all, even if it doesn’t feel like the magicians are locking themselves in a vault at the bottom of the sea anymore.

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