SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- How big of a difference is there between a 59 and 60?
“A Berlin Wall barrier,” Phil Mickelson once said.
Only six times on the PGA TOUR has a player reached golf’s magic number, while 27 players have recorded a 60 on 29 occasions.
One of those came last year in the opening round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where Mickelson lipped out a birdie putt on the final hole to settle for the latter.
“Six feet to go, it was in the center; three feet to go, it was in the center; a foot to go, it was in the center,” Mickelson said at the time. “Even as it's approaching the hole, I couldn't envision which side of the hole it could possibly miss on, and it ended up somehow just dying off at the end, catching the lip.”
Said playing partner Jason Dufner: “Unlucky. He was walking it in."
Added the other member of the group that day Rickie Fowler: “I thought it was in.”
The point? You need more than just good golf. Everything has to go just right, and even then it still might not be enough.
When Paul Goydos shot 59 in the opening round of the John Deere Classic four years ago, he says he was lucky enough to not think too much about it while it was happening.
He also caught a few breaks.
On Goydos’ fifth hole that day, his drive landed in the rough but he got a good lie and was able to save par. On the back he simply caught fire, making birdie on eight of nine holes -- including one on the 17th after Cliff Kresge hit his approach 4 inches behind Goydos’ ball to give him the line on the putt.
When Mickelson shot 60 in the second round here in 2005, he had a similar experience, making five straight birdies on the front nine to close out his round.
“There's a big difference between 60 and 59,” Mickelson said last year. “Not that big between 60 and 61; there really isn't.”
Added Goydos: “Your game needs to be in rare form. I hit it very good and putted out of my mind.”
To that end, Goydos’ next lowest round on TOUR was a 62, which he shot at the Cottonwood Valley course at TPC Four Seasons in the opening round of the 1999 HP Byron Nelson championship. He was on track to shoot 59 that day, too, until he made par on the par-5 16th and bogeyed the par-4 18th.
“Obviously that’s the hard part, taking 59 shots in only 18 holes,” Goydos said. “But I think it might just happen sort of spontaneously.”
The day after Goydos’ 59, he shot 68 and went on to finish second. The week before Mickelson’s near-59 last year, Lefty finished a pedestrian 51st at Torrey Pines.
When Tommy Gainey shot 60 in the final round to win The McGladrey Classic in 2012, he was coming off a missed cut the week before. He missed 18 of 32 cuts that season.
“The hardest thing is staying out of your own way,” said Gainey, who had a 20-foot birdie putt on his final hole at Sea Island to join golf’s most exclusive club. “I just got unconscious that day. We as players get in that kind of zone maybe twice a year.
“Everything has to go your way, you have to get a good break here or there, and you’ve got to make everything.”
For Gainey, that included holing a greenside bunker shot for eagle on the 15th hole.
Then there’s the matter of the venue, which is one of the reasons Goydos says Mickelson or Tiger Woods has never shot 59 in a TOUR event.
“Phil tends to play courses that are hard; same with Tiger,” he said. “You don’t see 59s in majors.”
Keegan Bradley had an outside shot at doing it in the opening round of last year’s HP Byron Nelson -- although after a couple of bogeys in the middle of his round he never really thought about it. He finished eagle-birdie-birdie to card a 60. He also recalls having a chance in a Web.com Tour event a few years earlier but parred out to miss by a couple of strokes.
“(Shooting 60 at the Nelson) is not something I’d consider a career highlight,” said Bradley, who went on to finish second that week. “But if you shoot 59, that’s something you tell people about.”