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Palmer learns why it's so hard to shoot 59

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LA QUINTA, Calif. – It’s been 16 years since David Duval punched the desert air after his closing 59 at the old Bob Hope Classic.

Aren’t you at least a little surprised that it hasn’t happened here since?

The weather is ideal – warm temperatures, dry air, nonexistent winds.

The courses are short by today’s standards (about 7,000 yards) and ranked among the easiest on the PGA Tour.

And the greens – always the go-low X-factor – are typically in immaculate shape.

So what gives? Why hasn’t there been another 59 here?

“We’re talking about golf,” Matt Kuchar said. “We’re not talking about corn hole. It’s a difficult game. It’s a very challenging game. Fifty-nine ... that’s a lot under par.”

That’s true, of course, but every year a player at the Humana Challenge makes a run at golf’s magic number.

In 2009, Pat Perez and Steve Stricker threw up 61s.

In 2012, Robert Garrigus fired a 61.

In 2013, there was a trio of 62s – in the final round.

Last year, Zach Johnson shot 62 without breaking a sweat.

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Sure enough, Ryan Palmer on Friday became the latest to scare a sub-60 score, playing an eight-hole stretch in 10 under par to sound the alarms.

“You have that feeling inside you that there’s no way I can miss this,” Palmer said. “You get in that zone. You could put that pin anywhere they wanted and I could have found it. ... I hate to use the word ‘easy,’ but it feels easy. The hole is big.”

So forget a 59 watch.

“Shoot,” caddie James Edmondson said, “I started thinking we could shoot 57 or 58 today.”

Except, inevitably, Palmer bogeyed his next two holes. And even though he birdied two of his next four to give himself another chance, he squandered a pair of opportunities on the closing stretch.

In the end, he “settled” for an 11-under 61, which matched his personal best and propelled him back into this tournament. At 12-under 132, he is in a tie for seventh, three shots back.

There’s a reason why breaking the sub-60 barrier is the rarest feat in golf, and it’s why those predicting that someone soon will post a 58 in a PGA Tour event might want to reconsider.

Yes, equipment is changing the game and today’s players are bigger, longer and stronger, but there still has been only one 59 in the past four years – and it was shot by Jim Furyk, who is neither big, long or strong. There has been only one sub-60 score on the Champions Tour, accomplished last year. There’s never been an official 59 on the Euro Tour.

That Palmer wasn’t able to close out his magical round Friday only underscores the fact that the difference between 60 and 59 is about six inches – or the distance between a person’s ears.

“It’s hard,” he said afterward, “because you start thinking about it. That’s probably why you see guys make a bogey coming in.”

During his brief skid in the second round, he fanned a 140-yard approach into a bunker and hit a poor sand shot. The next hole, he shied away from a back-left pin – typically a green-light flag for his draw – because he didn’t want to go into the water left. It led to a bogey.

Under normal circumstances he’d like to think he wouldn’t make those careless mistakes, but going low creates its own set of challenges and mental gymnastics.

You think about not thinking about it.

You try not to try.

On the ninth tee, his 18th of the day, Edmondson turned to his man and said: “If you shoot 60 with two bogeys, it’s just as impressive as a 59.”

Except Palmer pushed a 4-footer on the last.

“It’s pretty special,” Palmer said of his 61, but in this tournament it’s almost become routine.

All of the contenders went on a hot run Friday – how long it lasts is the difference between first place and 15th.

Kuchar, the leader, played his first 13 holes in 8 under.

Alex Cejka (-12) played a 10-hole stretch in 9 under.

Bill Haas (-14) ran off seven birdies in a row on his last nine.

“Usually if it’s going to happen,” Haas said of the birdie runs, “it’s going to happen here in the desert. That’s why we all like coming here.”

There’s a lot to like – a four-round confidence boost, ideal scoring conditions, easier setups – but to match Duval, to join a most exclusive club, it requires five-hour perfection in an imperfect game.

“You want to get to that magic number,” Palmer said with a tinge of disappointment, “because you never know if you’re going to get that chance again.”