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Why you shouldn't think PGA Tour is fretting about sub-60 scores

Adam Hadwin had 13 birdies during his round of 59 on Saturday, the ninth sub-60 score in PGA Tour history. AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Back in 1977, on a humid Friday in Memphis, Al Geiberger became golf's Neil Armstrong -- or at least its Roger Bannister. Geiberger shot 59 that day, then held his reign as the most recent (and only) player to accomplish that feat for 14 years.

By comparison, Justin Thomas' place in that position lasted exactly nine days. (That is, if we don't count Woody Austin's 59 that occurred at an unofficial PGA Tour Champions event the next day.) The ink was barely dry on everyone writing about the eighth sub-60 score in history when Adam Hadwin produced the ninth with an unlikely 13-birdie performance during the third round of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

A quick crunch of the chronological numbers shows that there were exactly three scores in the 50s in PGA Tour history before this decade, a number which has tripled in the seven years and three weeks since.

That might not count as a proliferation, but it's certainly a trend -- one which has launched an assault on the record books and left the rest of us 60-and-over scorers (it's still a decent-sized group, you know) hypothesizing as to why so many are going so low.

The easy answer is technology. Newer, better drivers allow players to hit the ball farther than ever, and improved golf balls keep them from veering as much from their intended targets, essentially rendering some of the world's best courses something closer to pitch-and-putt tracks.

Of course, suggest to any foursome of golfers club-slamming and swearing their way around the local muni that the game has become too simple, and you're likely to hear some of that swearing directed toward you. The truth is, even if technology is adversely affecting the game's most elite level, there isn't a trickle-down effect to the recreational ranks. All of which should only provide more fuel for the argument toward bifurcation -- two separate sets of rules for professionals and amateurs.

Then again, just because technology is the easy answer to why scores have dropped in recent years, that doesn't mean it's necessarily the right answer to explain the 59s.

Hadwin averaged "only" 289.5 yards off the tee in Palm Springs, just a notch above the field average. This round was more about precise ball-striking and torrid putting than a guy overpowering the course. That's nothing new: Two of those sub-60 scores have been posted by Jim Furyk, annually one of the game's shortest hitters off the tee.

If these 59s were being posted by big hitters such as Dustin Johnson and J.B. Holmes -- or even more relevantly, by players who'd just seen a major jump in driving distance -- then maybe we could point to the science behind the equipment as the reason why players are going extra low every week.

Instead, there's another, often overlooked factor at play.

Here's the dirty little secret: The attention that a "59 Watch" receives is better promotional advertising than most regular-season PGA Tour events could ever muster otherwise. From the Greenbrier Classic (where Stuart Appleby broke 60) to the John Deere Classic (Paul Goydos) to the Travelers Championship (Furyk) to the Sony Open (Thomas) to the CareerBuilder Challenge (Hadwin), these singular rounds captured the imagination of the mainstream audience, with those memories enduring long after a winner was crowned.

For these tournaments, not only is there little reason to set up courses tougher to counteract these scores, there's actually incentive to continually keep them on the easier side for the additional benefit of a potential record-setting round.

That's not to suggest tournaments are setting up courses for the sole purpose of hosting a 59, but ask those with a stake in the success of the Sony and CareerBuilder the past few weeks, and they'll undoubtedly admit there was a lot more interest in their events during and after those rounds.

There's little debate that technology has made the game easier, especially among those who play on the highest levels. To blindly draw parallels to this recent phenomenon of 59s, though, doesn't quite the fit the theme.

And while fans and even some professionals will bemoan this outbreak of low scores, don't expect anyone to attempt to thwart them anytime soon. The simple truth is that sub-60 scores are good for business, and there are very few tournament officials who wouldn't crave one on their course.