CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Don’t be alarmed by Branden Grace becoming the first player to shoot 62 in a major championship.
Or that two players, Justin Thomas and Adam Hadwin, shot 59 at the start of the year. There no longer is as much magic in a 59, not with Jim Furyk setting a new standard with a 58 only six months earlier.
The instinct is to fret about golf and the direction it’s going, and to question whether it’s the same challenge now as it was for Jack Nicklaus before them, for Ben Hogan before him.
If that’s the case, then go all the way back to Tom Kidd.
Long before Grace shot 62 in perfect scoring conditions at Royal Birkdale, the 18-hole record in majors first belonged to Kidd, who posted an 88 in the second round at St. Andrews for a one-shot victory over Jamie Anderson in the 1873 British Open.
It’s worth nothing, of course, that was the first time a golf championship was held on an 18-hole course. Kidd’s record lasted all of six months. The British Open was held in April the following year, and Mungo Park shaved 13 shots off the record in the first round at Musselburgh.
Scores have been getting lower ever since.
It’s a game with which previous generations of players and fans might not be familiar.
Consider the last few years.
Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open this year at 16-under 272, making him only the third player to finish double digits under par. Jason Day won the PGA Championship in 2015 at Whistling Straits by becoming the first major champion to finish at 20 under. That record was matched a year later when Henrik Stenson set the 72-hole record for majors at 20-under 264 at Royal Troon.
“The game is changing,” Rory McIlroy said. “But I don’t think it’s changing for the worse.”
McIlroy considered the players who came before him, including Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, regarded as the best two the sport has ever seen.
“I appreciate and I know what people before us have achieved,” he said. “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.”
They have better everything.
Players now have access to statistical data that tells them not just how many greens they hit, but how close from each distance. Dustin Johnson had Trackman on the range at Firestone to work on distance control of his wedges. His target was 115 yards. The numbers after each shot flashed on a tablet next to him. The first one went 115.7 yards, then 115.5, and then 115.3.
Technology improves every year, from golf equipment to teaching aids to lawn mowers.
Just like golf has moved on from wound golf balls and wooden clubs, football players have better gear, swimmers and skaters have better suits that are aerodynamically designed, and sprinters have better shoes and better surfaces.
“It is what we should expect,” Matt Kuchar said. “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.”
Traffic was held up along the ninth green at Quail Hollow Club on Monday evening as a small convoy of tractors and carts headed out to the course to put some late-night finishing touches on the course hosting this year’s PGA Championship. Two reel mowers were used on the fourth green, which didn’t look like it needed mowing. The grass clippings were the size of gnats.
On surfaces this pure, and players who practice this much, it’s a wonder they miss. That led McIlroy to another observation.
“If we weren’t better than the previous generation, we’d say, ‘What’s going on here?'” McIlroy said. “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.”
The shock wasn’t that Grace was the first to shoot 62 in a major, rather that it took 44 years since Johnny Miller first shot 63.
The real surprise would have been David Hunter, an obscure name in golf trivia. At a time when 72 was the best anyone had ever shot in the British Open or U.S. Open, Hunter shot a 68 at Englewood Golf Club in the 1909 U.S. Open.
That record stood for 16 years. Hunter, it should be noted, followed with rounds of 84-84-77.
The question now is how long it takes for someone to shoot 61.
“Probably not as long,” Dustin Johnson said. He smiled before adding, “It could be this week.”
It requires some adjustment, by the players who are posting scores and by the fans who are watching. McIlroy thinks the fans might have a harder time with it.
“It’s such a nostalgic game,” McIlroy said. “People remember when they watched Jack win a U.S. Open or Tom Watson chip in at Pebble Beach. Whatever generation it is, that’s what they’re going to remember, and that’s their fondest memory, so that’s the way they’ll want it to be.
“In 20 years’ time,” he said, “the next generation will be saying the same thing about us.”