Forty-five of the 65 players finished at par or better, besting last year’s weekend mark of 42, from Sunday. Twenty recorded scores in the 60s; the previous weekend best, 19, also came on Sunday of last year. And golf's biggest names have noticed.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — For all the beauty on display at the Masters—verdant, rolling hills; bright, peak-bloom azaleas; afternoon shadows dappling Amen Corner—the crystal vases the club awards for each day’s best round could be better classified as tchotchkes. A curlicue base gives way to a thick bowl, etched with MASTERS, then the tournament logo, then DAY’S LOW SCORE, then the details of the round. On Saturday, for the first time ever, three men earned vases bearing the number 64: Tony Finau, Webb Simpson and Patrick Cantlay.
On the first day without rain this year’s tournament has seen, they exemplified a record scoring day at the Masters: Forty-five of the 65 players finished at par or better, besting last year’s weekend mark of 42, from Sunday. Twenty recorded scores in the 60s; the previous weekend best, 19, also came on Sunday of last year.
Tiger Woods noticed. After he bogeyed No. 5, he reminded himself of what he had seen on the scoreboard: Golfers much less accomplished than he were tearing through the day.
“The golf course [was] certainly gettable,” he said after shooting a 67 to tie him with Finau. “A lot of scores going out there. One of the [amateurs] was out there earlier—he was four or five under. Patrick was going low. Tony was six under through eight. Just be patient. Let the round build. We’ve got a long way to go.”
It has become easier to shoot low scores at Augusta in recent years. Between the 17th green and 18th tee stands a six-sided stone structure, part water fountain and part monument to past champions. A look at the list of winners reveals a tournament that changed slowly and then quickly. There was one total as low as 275 for 72 holes until Jack Nicklaus’s 271 in 1965. No one bested that until Woods shot a 270 in ’97. Jordan Spieth matched that in 2015. This year’s winner could surpass it.
“The golf ball has gotten ridiculous. I have so many things on that,” Nicklaus said earlier this week. “The golf ball from 1930 to about ’95 gained about six yards. From 1995 to 2005, about 15 yards, and that’s a big difference. Probably the organizations won’t tell you that, but that’s exactly about what happened.”
Gary Player, who won here in 1974 and ’78, stumped for a new, bifurcated ball. “We’d better start thinking,” he said. “They are going to hit wedges to all the par-5s, and golf courses like St. Andrews, this marvelous golf course, is completely obsolete. They can drive probably six greens. … We have got to stop this. Otherwise it’s going to be a joke, in my opinion.”
Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said on Wednesday that he did not expect the club to institute rules regarding the ball, but the committee has attempted to counter by buying up land and lengthening holes.
On Saturday, none of that seemed to matter. The field combined for 277 birdies and eight eagles. The consensus seemed to be that the reason for the aviary was weather.
“It’s still soft [from the rain],” said Aaron Wise, whose 68 on Saturday tied his best career major round. “We were still able to attack and get at some of those pins that were tucked.”
Bubba Watson, who won here in 2012 but has only once matched Saturday’s 67, said, “The wind is not as bad, so it’s easier to get the clubs right. Doesn’t mean you’re going to hit a good shot, but you have a better chance of getting the clubs right and getting the distance right that way.”
Simpson said, “Any time you put the PGA Tour on receptive greens and low wind, scores will be good, no matter where we are.”
Reporters gave Cantlay a chance to give himself credit for his performance. He declined. “Out of all the rounds I played here this was the easiest, scoring condition–wise,” he said. “I got out early and the ball was going the right distance, the wind wasn’t blowing too much, greens were soft and the hole locations were much easier than the last few days. I thought the last few days the hole locations were really tough, and I saw a few that I actually had never seen before. So it was kind of the perfect storm.”
He was being figurative, but Sunday is expected to bring a literal storm, complete with high winds, thunder and lightning. Tee times have been moved up, golfers have been grouped in threesomes and the field will play on split tees, half beginning on No. 1 and half on No. 10. The weather will likely give the Masters a day off from another scoring record. But next year’s vases may bear the number 63.