Matt Jones shot 62-61 (-23) over the weekend at the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua earlier this month and did not win, He finished the tournament at -32, breaking the previous PGA Tour record of -31, and did not win. He didn’t even finish second as Cameron Smith won the tournament with a -34 total and Jon Rahm finished a shot behind at -33.
Prior to the tournament, only three players had ever finished at -30 or better in a 72- hole event across the 93-year history of the PGA Tour. In one week that number doubled to six.
These scores are a reminder, if one was needed, that going extremely low on the PGA Tour is now the norm, even when conditions aren’t as favourable as they were in Kapalua.
The technology and the coaching, the information that’s out there and that helps players improve their game is so good that everyone has really elevated their game,” Kevin Na said before last week’s Sony Open. The depth of the field is getting stronger. When the guys get hot, they are not scared, and I think more and more you’ll see record-setting scores.”
Of course, performances in all sports have improved as information, training and technology has improved. To take just one example, the men’s 100m record was 9.86 in 1991. Today, it stands at 9.58.
However, the last seven years in particular have seen an acceleration of low scoring on the PGA Tour, driven at least in part by the increasing distances the players hit the ball today. In 2015, the average winning score on tour was -15.58, which was actually up 0.1 of a stroke from 2010 (-15.68). In fact ,scoring trends were pretty steady during that stretch too. But by 2017-18, average winning scores had improved by a shot to -16.56 and in 2020-21 it was almost another shot better at -17.46.
Last season the winning score was at least -10 in every single one of the 35 individual tour events, excluding the four Majors and the four FedEx Cup Playoff events. Even including those eight tournaments, only two – the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship – were won with a score higher than -10.
Perhaps no tournament illustrates just how much scoring has improved than The Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which debuted on tour in 1939. From 1975 to 1989, seven winners, or just under 50%, finished -10 or lower, with Tom Watson setting the tournament record at 273 (-15) in 1977. Over the next 15 years from 1990 to 2004, 12 winners accomplished that feat, with the record moving to -20 in 1997, when Mark O’Meara won.
Since 2005, no winner has finished single digits under par with the lowest 72-hole total being -10. In 2015, Brandt Snedeker set the current tournament record at -22. Starting that year, the highest winning score has been -17.
Other tournaments have seen similar trends. At Colonial, which has hosted a U.S. PGA Tour event for over 70 years, the last seven winners have all been double digits under par, with Justin Rose going the lowest at 20-under.
The average winning score since 2015 has been 14.4 under. At the Travelers Championship, the winning total has been at least 14 under except for 2017, when it was -12.
Jon Rahm points to Tiger Woods as the catalyst for this kind of scoring. “The simple fact is since Tiger started playing golf, you're getting people that take this game a lot more seriously,” Rahm said after finishing second at the Tournament of Champions. “Everybody thinks about it more like athletes. So the level of the game is a lot higher than it used to be.”
The low scoring also means records don’t last as long as they used to in the past. Jack Nicklaus held the Masters scoring record of -17 for 32 years. His U.S Open record of 8-under lasted 20 years. Both records were broken by Woods, whose records have already been broken too. Woods’ Masters record lasted 23 years even though the course has been lengthened from just under 7,000 yards to almost 7,500 yards over the last two decades. Meanwhile Woods’ U.S. Open record was shattered just 11 years later by Rory McIlroy.
Before Woods no player had ever finished better than 8-under at the U.S. Open. Since Woods finished at -12 in 2000 at Pebble Beach, three others have gone lower, including Gary Woodland, who shot -13 to win at Pebble Beach in 2019.
Woods also won his U.S. Open by 15 shots. He was simply on a different planet from every other player in the field. In contrast, Woodland won his U.S. Open by three shots. Woods is also either the best golfer ever or the second best golfer ever, depending on your point of view. Woodland has won a grand total of four times on Tour.
In other words, isn’t just the best players in the world going low anymore. Almost any player on any given week can get hot and reel off record-breaking scores.
The big question, of course, is what does this do for golf as a spectator sport? Are all the birdies too much of a good thing? Is the style of golf being played too similar from week to week and player to player? Acclaimed author and journalist John Feinstein thinks the answer is yes to all these questions.
“When a course produces a winning score of 20 under par—or lower—there is an absolute sameness to almost every hole, every day. For most players, it’s driver off the tee/wedge approach, or something shorter and then perhaps an 8-iron. Miss the fairway? No problem, the second shot is usually short enough and the rough not quite so menacing that today’s players can spin a shot close to the hole anyway,” he wrote in an article for Golf Digest a few years ago.
His solution is to make courses harder rather than longer; make finding the rough or the bunker more penalizing; make finding fairways more difficult. In other words, get players to use a wider variety of skills. “That doesn’t mean you have to make courses unfair; just make them more challenging. How about this for a new slogan: “Make birdies meaningful again.”
Golf’s governing bodies might be taking another approach to achieve the same result. The R&A recently reviewed the impact of equipment on the distances the pros hit the ball and wants some changes made, including to how far the golf ball can fly.
Not everyone wants these changes made but the risk of not doing anything could mean the concept of par will soon become irrelevant on the PGA Tour.
Photo – Golf Digest