Golf is a curious game, to be sure, but we fans of the stick-and-ball sport are more curious still. Why the heck are we so obsessed with low scores in golf?
Here’s a question: When the average golf fan tunes in to watch golf on television, what is s/he hoping to see? Did Hideki Matsuyama’s 61 at Firestone lead to breast-beating and wailing?
Does s/he want a grueling U.S. Open style test where balls don’t stay on the green (ala Winged Foot in 2006), can’t land near the flag, and tee shots land in knee-high rough? A birdie bonanza, with players knocking down pins and pouring in birdie putts?
Regardless of which end of the above spectrum said fan falls on, surely a heated battle down the stretch with multiple players jockeying for the W is more compelling than a runaway victory or three-shot margin? Surely a survey of historical viewership data would bear this out.
Beyond back-and-forth drama, fans tune in for stars winning. Consider this year’s British Open, which Jordan Spieth won by three strokes. The tournament received the highest rating (3.2) since 2009. Astonishing, considering the Mickelson-Stenson drama of 2016.
All of this is to say, why are we so obsessed with players shooting low scores like it’s a bad thing? If you’re an absolute purist, you don’t settle for anything other than hickory shafts and featheries. And if that’s not your orientation, who gives a damn?
Is high scoring an affront to basketball purists? Should a player never score more than 40 points? And slam dunking, what of that profanity?
It’s all a bit silly, this idea of par, isn’t it? “This is the score you’re supposed to shoot on this hole.” Who cares? The lowest score wins. It’s an affront to the game if that number is minus-30 rather than even par?
Not surprisingly, given the peculiar nature of the game, players at the PGA Championship were asked about some of this year’s most eye-popping scores.
“The game is changing,” Rory McIlroy said. “But I don’t think it’s changing for the worse.”
“I appreciate and I know what people before us have achieved. But I feel every generation in every sport gets a little better, just because there’s a few more years of knowledge. Equipment seems to get better. Science. Knowledge. Analytics.”
“It’s all a part of it now and these things can only help. Yes, the scores are coming down in golf. Everyone says our generation was better than the last,” he said. “But I think we have more at our disposal.”
And it’s not just the players, it’s the courses. Try holing a 20-footer on a 1950s PGA Tour green! Forget about driving distance, it’s about 1,000 times easier to make a putt on today’s pristine surfaces. And players have yardage books that give them a damn good idea how putts will break. We’ve developed grips to minimize the yips…a putter for every preference, etc.
“It is what we should expect,” Matt Kuchar said of player improvements. “Guys in any sport, any activity, have figured out how to get better with all the extra work and study and whatever else. We see it everywhere, whether it’s the track or the pool, the golf course, hoops. We continue to see better numbers posted.”
This is true. Yet it’s only golf that we expect an organization, the USGA, to step in and counter this trend by limiting driver head size, limiting coefficient of restitution, rolling back the ball, etc. Why is this? Is golf somehow less entertaining in 2017 than it was in 1950. It’s supposed to be entertaining, right?
Rory McIlroy offered this eminently sensible summation.
“If we weren’t better than the previous generation, we’d say, ‘What’s going on here? We have Trackman and biomechanics, and we know everything about everything — nutrition on the golf course, things that guys didn’t have back in the day. So if we’re not better, then we’re doing a pretty bad job.”
Golf has plenty of problems. Low scores aren’t one of them. They aren’t a threat to the future of the game. Can we move on, please?