HONOLULU – They gushed and gawked, spoke in hushed tones about the loftiness of the accomplishment and how Justin Thomas was playing a different game.
There have now been eight sub-60 rounds in PGA Tour history by seven players, and Thomas’ 11-under 59 on Thursday at the Sony Open certainly came with its share of style points.
Thomas, 23, became the youngest player to join the sub-60 club and just the second to complete his round with an eagle, a clutch 15-footer up the hill on the ninth hole. That his 59 came less than five days after he’d won the SBS Tournament of Champions also added a degree of difficulty to the moment for Thomas.
“Man, what a round. I’ve been coming here a lot of years and I’ve never seen a 59 around here,” said Charles Howell III, who in 15 trips to Waialae Country Club has never posted a score better than 62. “Windy, not windy, I don’t care, that’s one heck of a round.”
But as impressive as Thomas’ round was, if you break it down statistically and strategically it might not be the best round on Tour in the last 12 months.
The most straightforward way to compare rounds is measuring how it stands up to the field average for that day. For example, Thomas’ 59 was 9.25 strokes better than the Day 1 average (68.25) in Hawaii.
Using that measurement, Jim Furyk’s 58, which was 10.65 strokes better than the field average, during the final round of the 2016 Travelers Championship is the most impressive card over the last year.
By comparison, Ken Duke’s 7-under 65 on Saturday at last year’s Players Championship might have been a more impressive turn, beating the field average on a ridiculously tough day at TPC Sawgrass by 10.59 strokes.
Some might even say Brandt Snedeker’s closing 69 at last year’s Farmers Insurance Open, which was delayed by wind gusts to 35 mph, should be in the conversation at 8.9 strokes under the average. It might not be an apples-to-pineapples comparison, but Stephan Jaeger’s 71 in Round 1 last week at the Web.com Tour season opener in the Bahamas was 9.4 strokes better than the collective average.
Thomas’ opening effort in Hawaii was certainly impressive, historic even, but when ranking the best rounds most players went beyond the initial sticker shock of the total score.
“I don’t want to say 59 is becoming normal, but anything in the 50s is just spectacular,” said Zach Johnson before considering Duke’s 65 at TPC Sawgrass. “That was ridiculous, that golf course was essentially unplayable. I was getting it to 20 feet and was like, OK, I’m not going to three-putt this. That was my mentality. That’s not good. To me, that one sticks out.”
Still, there’s a certain aura to Furyk’s 58 at TPC River Highlands that most players always return to, that at 46 years old, the veteran was able to become the first player in Tour history to achieve has an intoxicating appeal.
“Jimmy’s 58, I actually played with him on Thursday and Friday [at the Travelers Championship]. I don’t know if you can rank them,” Johnson said.
For Duke – who, for the record, contends Furyk’s 58 was the best round on Tour last year – it’s not necessarily the number that impresses as much as it is the degree of difficulty.
“I look at the conditions more than anything,” Duke said. “Yesterday, here you can do that around this place, there are a lot of shorter clubs and conditions are perfect. But conditions weren’t perfect when I played and when Furyk played.”
On Saturday at TPC Sawgrass, for example, the Stadium Course played to the second toughest third-round scoring average on Tour last season; and Torrey Pines posted the year’s highest final-round average (77.9) in 2016 as a backdrop to Snedeker’s accomplishment.
Another way to judge the relative quality of a low round would be to compare it to others who played well on the same day.
“What’s the next best score?” Johnson asked of Thursday’s action in Hawaii. “Justin shot 59 and what was the next best score [Hudson Swafford’s 62]? So there’s three shots, six-, seven-shot gap, then you have a low round.”
By that measure, Furyk – who was four shots better than the next player, who was Thomas, on Sunday at the Travelers Championship – and Thomas (four shots) would get the nod over Duke, who was two clear of Hideki Matsuyama (67) on that demanding Saturday, and Snedeker, who was three ahead of the next best (Robert Streb) in San Diego.
But then it should also be pointed out that there were only three scores in the 60s on Day 3 at The Players, and Snedeker’s was the only sub-70 card in Round 4 at Torrey Pines, which had to be completed on Monday because of a violent wind storm.
“That’s tough,” Johnson said when pressed for an answer. “Every round is different.”
Although it might be a debate over varying shades of perfection, the one thing that isn’t up for discussion is that every one of these rounds was impressive.