It almost feels cruel to call a 60 “disappointing,” and it feels crueller that for the second straight year, the FedExCup Playoffs have delivered a superb round that would qualify for that catty adjective.
It happened in 2020 at the Northern Trust, when Dustin Johnson raced out to 11-under after 11 holes before making par on the final seven holes to coast to a 60. And it happened again Friday at the BMW Championship, when Bryson DeChambeau’s quest for 59 came down to a six-foot, 3-inch birdie putt on 18 that started left and stayed left, consigning his round to the realm of “merely amazing” rather than “historic,” and proving yet again that golf is cruel even when it’s being kind.
The fact that any of us care about 59, and the fact that we get excited when a player approaches that elusive number, is an accident of the Arabic numeral system. A score of 59 would not be a PGA Tour record – that’s 58, a score posted by Jim Furyk at the 2016 Travelers Championship – and if DeChambeau made his last putt, his score of 13-under for the round would only tie the tour record. There are many who would argue, convincingly, that his 12-under 60 at Caves Valley on Friday is every bit as impressive as Furyk’s legendary 12-under 58.
But 60 doesn’t start with the number five, it doesn’t have the same ring, and so it doesn’t capture our attention quite the same way. Unfair, but unavoidable.
DeChambeau’s threat to shoot 59 came only six days after Australia’s Cameron Smith also had a birdie putt on the 18th hole in the Northern Trust for a 59 but misread the 12-footer and missed.
“I knew all day if I continued to hit fairways and greens, I could give myself a really good chance. I could get it to 12, possibly 13-under,” DeChambeau said. “That was certainly the goal I was saying on the fairway, one more, come on. I hit a great shot, just misread the putt. It’s just one shot.”
(In a trend that began at the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational in Memphis has continued throughout the playoffs, DeChambeau spoke briefly with TV and radio, but declined to speak to print media, hence the paucity of self-reflection on his near-miss.)
It was one of the few shots DeChambeau failed to execute to near-perfection. His day began with a 343-yard drive on the par-4 first that nearly reached the green, and resulted in a 10-footer for birdie, followed by a routine birdie on the par-5 second. The fun continued with an 11-foot eagle putt on 4, a 12-footer for birdie on 5, and two more on 7 and 8.
That led to a 29 on the front, and after three more birdies, he hit what was perhaps his best shot of an exceptional round – an approach from the rough – on the par-5 16th to set up his second eagle of the day:
That put him at 12-under for the round, needing just one birdie in the last two holes to reach 59. He had his chances, too, but a missed 17-footer for birdie on 17 and the misread on 18 left him agonisingly short.
“I played with Bryson the first two rounds when he won at Bay Hill, and when he’s driving it that straight, it’s got to be what it was like in the early 2000s with Tiger just hitting it the furthest and the straightest,” said Jordan Spieth, one of DeChambeau’s playing partners on Friday. “I was just trying to piggy-back a little bit, but when you’re watching it, it can be a little bit kind of frustrating if you don’t have it going, just because you’re like, man, is this what everyone is doing; is everyone tearing it up? But yeah, what a round.”
“What people don’t realise is how good a putter he really is,” said Harris English, the third player of the trio. “He’s got a system that he works on. I don’t really know exactly what it is, but he’s a great putter … if he keeps driving it the way he is, he can shoot whatever he wants to shoot. I haven’t seen him drive it this well since I’ve played with him.”
Incidentally, Spieth and English both reported that the crowds were largely supportive of DeChambeau, following a handful of heckling incidents in past weeks.
It’s a career-best PGA Tour round for DeChambeau, whose previous low was 62, and as of the weather delay that hit the course in the mid-afternoon, he held a one-shot lead over Patrick Cantlay. He’ll be seeking his first win since the Arnold Palmer Invitational earlier this season, and his second since his 2020 U.S. Open victory. He’ll think about the putt on 18 – he’s only human – but a win on Sunday would go some way to redeeming what has been a frustrating two months on and off the course and turn his Friday from a “disappointing” 60 into an impressive stepping-stone to victory.