The culture of golf is rooted in the Aegean, 0-based numbering system, and various yardsticks and barriers typically end with a zero. For the beginner, breaking 100 is always a goal. As players stick with the game, they set their sights on posting a score under 90, maybe 80. Touring pros nearly always feel better about themselves when they shoot under 70. Just the prospect of breaking 60, which has been done nine times on the PGA Tour, leaves the world’s best players with clammy skin. Jim Furyk’s record score, set last year at the Tour stop outside Hartford, looks almost freakish: 58. Dude broke 60 by two, three years after he became the sixth player to shoot 59!
Which leads us to golf’s most confounding record: The lowest score ever shot in one of the game’s four major championships for men is 63, and it has been done (pardon the shouting) 30 TIMES! Talk about being stuck. And what could possibly be so special about the number 63? Weird, weird, weird.
Making this scenario weirder yet is the number of qualified candidates trying to break the barrier. This week at the Masters and three more times this year there will be gatherings of dozens of elite golfers who possess the skill set to shoot 62—a conservative estimate based on the scores the game’s best players shoot on Tour. In nonmajor events since 1983 (record keeping before that is unreliable), there have been 754 rounds of 62 or better shot by hundreds of players. Yes, broadly speaking, majors are conducted on more challenging courses. But it’s not like the weekly Tour events are played on pitch-and-putts.
Observers often cite otherworldly forces to explain this 30-way tie. Consider the first round of last year’s British Open at Royal Troon, contested on a bright, still day on the par-71 seaside links. The course’s flattish greens were smooth and its fairways firm. (This is how golfers think.) At the last hole Phil Mickelson faced an 18-foot birdie putt for a 62. On its way to the cup the ball looked to be history unfolding. Perfect speed. Perfect line. But then, inexplicably, Mickelson’s ball did a do-si-do with the white TV paint inside the hole and did not drop. Mickelson and his caddie and playing partners, along with millions around the world, moaned in unison: How did that not go in? Nick Faldo, who shot 63 in the 1993 British Open at Royal St. George, offered this broad answer by email the other day: “Golfing Gods are goalie’n a 62!!!” For Sir Nick, who will be in the broadcast booth for CBS at the Masters, that’s about a year’s worth of exclamation marks in a single sentence.
Mickelson is by no means the only player who has been stymied on his way to 62. Just to name three, Nick Price, Greg Norman and Tiger Woods have had similar experiences. Price posted his 63 at Augusta National, spiritual home of Bobby Jones, during the third round of the 1986 Masters. After a bogey at the 1st, Price birdied 10 of the next 15 holes, but his 30-foot birdie attempt at the last spun out. Afterward Price said, “I think Bobby Jones’s hand came up and popped it out of the hole and said, ‘That’s enough.'” Woods, asked recently about his putt for 62 in the second round of the 2007 PGA Championship at Southern Hills, recalled how his 15-foot birdie try on 18 went “halfway into the hole but stayed out. I called it 62½.”
Faldo’s reference to “Golfing Gods” and Price’s to the resurrection of Bobby Jones (deceased since 1971) raise the question: Don’t the game’s spirits have better things to worry about than a player shooting lower than 63 in a major?
Johnny Miller made that the benchmark on June 17, 1973. (Before that, the record at the four majors was 64, first shot by Lloyd Mangrum at the ’40 Masters, subsequently matched seven times.) Miller’s is undoubtedly the most famous of the 63s. Not only was he was the first to shoot it, but he also did it in a U.S. Open (golf’s hardest test), at Oakmont (golf’s hardest course), on a Sunday (golf’s hardest day). Plus, he won. But that was two score and four years ago. And we remain on hold.
Of the 30 63s, only two have been posted at Augusta, by Price in 1986 and by Norman a decade later. Neither player won. There have been four 63s in the U.S. Open, 10 in the British Open and 14 in the PGA Championship. Norman and Vijay Singh are the only players to have done it twice. Just seven of the 30 were part of a victory march. We share these factoids to raise awareness, which is limited at best.
Really. While most know that 63 is the record, you could poll golf officials and touring pros from now until the 2018 Masters and not find three people who know that it has been shot 30 times. Estimates on how often it has been shot generally range from eight to 15, max. Few can cite a quarter of the names on the list. One of the most obscure is Hiroshi Iwata of Japan, who at the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits bettered his opening-round 77 by 14 strokes on Friday. The most recent member is Robert Streb, who shot 63 at last year’s PGA at Baltusrol. Streb hails from Chickasha, Okla. Sometimes he sports a beard, if that helps.
Don’t look for Streb at the Masters. He didn’t qualify. As for the chances of someone shooting 62 or better this week, they aren’t good. (Now watch it happen. The SI curse in reverse.) Augusta National, a par-72, was not even 7,000 yards when Price and Norman went low. Its main defense was the most perplexing collection of greens in all of golfdom. Since then the course has been lengthened by almost 500 yards, scores of trees have been planted, and the fairways have been hemmed in by modest rough.
You may be familiar with these developments by the term invented after the 1997 Masters, which Woods won by 12. The course was, people said, Tigerproofed. Only it wasn’t. Woods won three more green jackets, but never shot lower than 65. More accurately, Augusta was 63-proofed.
At least that’s what Tom Weiskopf believes. We introduce Weiskopf’s testimony here because he’s an astute student of Augusta National (he had seven top 10 finishes at the Masters) and because he shot 63 in a U.S. Open on a day that lives in infamy at USGA headquarters. (June 12, 1980, first round at par-70 Baltusrol; Jack Nicklaus also carded a 63, even after making bogey at the 2nd and missing a three-foot birdie putt at the last. The USGA gents, mid-chest tie bars firmly in place, did not throw a party. They consider par to be the ultimate standard of golfing excellence.)
“I don’t see how anybody is going to shoot 62 in the Masters,” says Weiskopf, a noted course architect. “Let’s say someone like Dustin Johnson could reach all of the par-5s in two and birdie all four of them. He’d still need to hit it close enough to make six birdies on the remaining 14 holes to shoot 62, and those greens are too difficult to hit it close enough to do that.”
In fact, in the second round of the 2015 Masters, Johnson eagled three of the par-5s and birdied the other … and signed for a 67.
Furyk agrees. “I don’t see it happening at the Masters,” says Mr. 58. “That place used to be fun to play, but now it’s just hard.” Jordan Spieth has a dissenting view. “Of the four majors, I’d say Augusta or the Open Championship when it’s played at St. Andrews are the best chances for somebody to break 63,” he says. “At the Masters you can drive the ball in the fairway, and the British Open can give you weather conditions that are conducive to scoring. It will happen. It’s just a matter of when.” Forgive Master Spieth, for he is young (23).
Rory McIlroy was 21 when he shot 63 at St. Andrews in the first round of the 2010 British Open. He had a five-foot birdie putt on the Road Hole. “It sort of went through my mind on 17 that 62 would have been the lowest round in a major,” McIlroy said that day. “That’s probably why I missed the putt.” He closed par-birdie on a windless day for 63 on the par-72 course. (The wind kicked up on Friday, and he shot 80.)
Norman knows all about trying to close. In the second round of the 1986 British Open at par-70 Turnberry, the Australian was seven under standing on the tee of the par-5 17th hole. “I started thinking about 60,” he says. An eagle-birdie finish would get him there. He missed an 18-foot eagle putt at the 17th, but made birdie. Still, a 4 at the last would have given him 62. He three-putted for a bogey. “I got ahead of myself. Coming off the 18th green, I was so disappointed. Funny things happen when a player starts thinking. It’s not the golf gods at work—it’s the player trying to do the abnormal.”
The course architect Rees Jones has a variation on Norman’s theme. Jones is known as the Open Doctor for the work he has done preparing courses for the U.S. Open. He has renovated PGA Championship venues as well. “Sixty-three is such an important record, and the majors are so important to players that it affects their play,” Jones says. “You have all those low scores at Tour events because the players can freewheel it. There’s always next week. But there are only four majors a year, and once one is over you have to wait a year to play in it again. You’re playing for history, and that’s different.”
History suggests, and Jones agrees, that the best chance for a sub-63 score will come in a PGA Championship. “That’s because it’s played in August, the heat requires more watering,” Jones says. The softer the greens, the more aggressive the player can be in trying to hit the ball close to the hole, knowing it will stop.
This year the PGA is being played at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, the site of a spring Tour event since 2003 and a course the players know well. In 2015, McIlroy shot a course-record 61. August in Charlotte is broiling. The course will play as a par-71. Will someone shoot nine under?
The answer depends upon many things, including where the tee markers are planted, where the holes are cut, how high and thick the rough is grown. All of that hand-of-man fine-tuning falls ultimately to Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America official in charge of its championships. “You could put every hole on a ridge, and make the course very difficult, but that’s not fun for the players or the spectators,” Haigh says. “We’re trying to test the players but allow them to score as well.” He considers the prospect of a player shooting 62, at Quail Hollow or at any other PGA Championship, “exciting.”
The consensus, based on a dozen interviews, is that the least likely place to see a 62 (or lower) is at a U.S. Open. Even Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, agrees. “We have hard U.S. Open courses,” he says, “and really hard ones.”
When it happens, if it happens, the Earth may not slip off its axis. The round that breaks the 30-way tie could come in the early afternoon and with little fanfare. A world-class player makes the cut on the number. He goes out first on Saturday morning. There’s no wind, the course is soft from an overnight rain, the greens are true. He is under no pressure because he’s miles from the lead. He shoots eight under on a par-70 course, and there it is: 62.
Jim Furyk believes that round, or something like it, is coming. So do Mike Davis and Kerry Haigh. Ditto for Rees Jones and Tom Weiskopf. Greg Norman and Nick Faldo, the same. And Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth. The list goes on, as it must. Golf without optimism is another phrase for purgatory.
“I’m 74,” Weiskopf says, “and I firmly believe I will see a 62 in a major in my lifetime.” Brave man, taking it right to the golfing gods.
But Weiskopf knows what we all know: It’s up to the players. The spirit of Bobby Jones didn’t stop that putt for 62 from going in, did it? No, the Masters is not a séance. Neither are the other three majors. They’re just golf tournaments. Right?