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Golf's magic number doesn't seem so magical
PGA Tour pro Steve Stricker tees off on hole No. 17 during the third round of the John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill., Saturday, July 10, 2010. Stricker finished the day in first-place with nine under par and a three day total of 188. - photo by Associated Press

AKRON, Ohio — The PGA Tour used to be so hard that it was boring to play, much less watch.

It was only three years ago at Firestone — Tiger Woods was the only player to break par that week — that Steve Stricker spoke for dozens of players when he said just about every tournament felt like a major.

It sure hasn't seemed like that lately.

"This is a little different," Stricker said with a smile Tuesday when reminded of his comments.

Now, every tournament feels like the Bob Hope Classic.

Consider the flurry of low scores over the last four weeks on the PGA Tour:

—Paul Goydos became the first player in 11 years to shoot golf's magic number when he opened with a 59 at the John Deere Classic. Even more amazing was it only gave him a one-shot lead over Stricker, who shot 60 and went on to win the tournament.

—Rory McIlroy didn't flirt with a 59, but he had a great chance to set a major championship record at the British Open until he missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the 17th at St. Andrews. He was mildly disappointed with a 63.

—Carl Pettersson had to settle for a 60 in the third round of the Canadian Open when his 30-foot birdie putt from just off the front of the 18th green caught part of the lip.

—D.A. Point had a chance to shoot 59 at the Greenbrier until he three-putted for bogey on the par-5 17th and shot 61. It wasn't even the low score of the third round — J.B. Holmes shot a 60 that day. Both scores were trumped in the final round Sunday when Stuart Appleby birdied his last three holes for a 59, rallying from a seven-shot deficit to win.

What exactly is golf's magic number these days?

Ryo Ishikawa might argue that it's 58, for that's what he shot in the final round to win on the Japan Golf Tour in May. If you allow Bobby Wyatt to join the conversation, the teenager could lobby for his 57 last week at the Alabama Boys State Junior Championship.

All of which leads to another question.

Has golf become too easy?

"You still have to make the score," David Duval said. "You still have to hit the shots."

Duval shot his 59 in the final round of the Bob Hope Classic in 1999, becoming only the third player in PGA Tour history to shoot 59. That was 11 years ago. Two players matched that in a span of four weeks.

"I guess it's the law of averages. We were due to have a couple of good ones," Goydos said Monday. "Maybe the bigger story is not why there was an 11-year drought, but why we went more than two weeks without one? Or you could always make the argument that everyone figured that if Goydos could do it, anyone could do it."

Ernie Els recalls the one time he had a shot at 59.

"At Royal Melbourne of all places," Els said. "Those Aussies were (beside) themselves. Nobody could shoot 60 at Royal Melbourne. And they were trying to talk on my backswing the last three holes. ... I had two chances coming in. Didn't quite do it. I think I felt embarrassed for them."

Now, however, Els is searching for reasons just like everyone else.

"I don't know if the tour is trying to get some people to watch television again because they're seeing a lot of birdies," he said with a half-smile that made you wonder if he really was serious. "But I'm not sure what my take is. There's even two 60s, 61s. It's starting to look like the Nationwide Tour."

Theories abound, only because everyone wants answers in a sport that rarely provides them.

Yes, these guys are good. They are better than ever, and there are more of them than ever before. They play with less fear and attack every pin. The equipment is better than ever.

What can't be overlooked is golf's greatest defense against low scores — firm greens and wind.

Both have been on holiday of late.

"John Deere was like playing in a vacuum," said Goydos, who could lift, clean and place his ball when he shot 59. "It was like dome golf."

Appleby has been playing golf every week since May, so he's an expert on conditions. He was in the same group when Stricker shot his 60 at the John Deere, and he played with Points during his round of 61.

"There's a common theme," Appleby said. "The golfers aren't any better. We're getting better each year, but course preparation and weather is everything. ... You have to make everything, and you can only do that on basically receptive greens. None of these rounds are shot on firm greens, I can assure you of that."

Record scoring is not the worst thing to happen to golf in a year when Tiger Woods isn't driving much interest inside the ropes. And it beats the complaints from 2007, when rough was so thick the only option was hacking out to the fairway.

Tyler Dennis, vice president of competition for the PGA Tour, noted that two of the tournaments over the last month were played on new courses — St. George's for the Canadian Open, the Old White for the Greenbrier Classic.

He recalls his first trip to the Greenbrier when the staff talked about making Old White an exciting, dramatic course that was fun to play and kept the element of a classic design.

"The score didn't cross anyone's mind," Dennis said. "But that's been the philosophy when the rules staff sets up a course. We want it to be a great venue and we want variety throughout the year. And we want to provide a competitive and fair test. The words 'score' and 'easy' and 'hard' ... don't play into it at all."

What to expect this week at Firestone, a 7,400-yard course that plays to a par 70?

"We get to a beast like this ... I would hate to see a 59 this week," Els said. "Because then I'll know I'm playing a different game."