40-under-par is a target that stares back at the 204 teams in the field like a dare.
It’s like hitting .400 in baseball, shooting 59 on the PGA Tour or getting to 10-under in the U.S. Open. Sure, it’s happened before, but it’s a high bar.
In the Sunny King Classic, 40-under has never happened in the modern era where handicap strokes can only take a player to par. While some players expect it will happen some day, it might not this year. The combination of formats, putting surfaces and recent heavy rains to soften conditions are expected to conspire against it, despite expected generous hole locations and all three courses in the best collective shape of any King rotation.
“I doubt we see 40, but I would definitely think we’ll see some 35s and 36s,” tournament chairman Jimmy Flowers said even before the rains came. “That’s still some scoring; that’s less than 60 average. To go that low, somebody has to get in the 50s ... at the Country Club and nobody has gotten in the 50s all three days.”
“It’s got to be a magical weekend, for sure,” four-time winner Jeremy McGatha said.
That weekend starts today when the 35th annual Classic tees off at Anniston Country Club, Cider Ridge Golf Club and Silver Lakes. A full field of 204 two-man teams will be competing in seven flights, with the high-powered Mustang championship flight drawing 44 pairs for what Flowers calls a “wide open” race for the overall title.
Teams have gotten close to the magic number before. McGatha and Jaylon Ellison shot 39-under two years ago and Randy Reaves and Gary Wigington shot 38 with a final-hole winning birdie last year, but that’s been the limit.
Jimmy and Charles Singleton are the only team in Classic history to get to 40. They shot 41-under in 1987, but that was a time it was a straight net event; the current handicap rules went into effect two years later.
Each of the last 11 champions — and 12 of the last 13 — have won it with scores in the 30s. Before that, the best score under the current scoring rules was 26-under-par.
Thirty-five used to be the number; now it’s just a layover. Course managers are expected to offer generous hole locations this weekend, largely to improve pace of play concerns, but the players still have to hit the shots and make the putts.
“I think it’s possible and one year it’s going to happen, but I don’t know if it’s going to be this year,” two-time champion Marcus Harrell said. “The conditions are really wet right now. Those greens you used to drive up close to, you’re not going to get the roll so it’s not going to be as close. So, now, instead of a 15-yard chip shot you’ve got a 40-yard pitch shot. That doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but in all reality it’s a huge difference.”
Earlier in the week tournament officials were discussing options in the event the weather or conditions prevented portions of the courses from being open, but those fears seem to have been allayed.
The field will play a scramble round at Silver Lakes, a modified scramble with partial handicap at Cider Ridge and a best ball with full handicap at Anniston Country Club. There are two mulligans and “sandie” throw available to help the players along, but, as it has been since 1989, handicap strokes can only take a player to par and no lower. So, everything the players get under par has to come naturally.
“Forty under is nearly impossible with our current format,” Wigington said. “The main reason is the final round at ACC. Shooting double digits there is very difficult, especially with the pace of those greens.
“It is very hard for a team to play perfectly for three straight days and that is what is would take to get to 40 under.”
While each of the last two winners have shot 60 at the par-70 Anniston Country Club, only one champion has ever broken that barrier under the current rules. Gary Wilborn and Ott Chandler shot 59 in the final round of 2002 when they tied what was the modern-day scoring record, but they shot 59-61 in the two rounds prior. In fact, each of the last five champions have posted their first two rounds in the 50s, but failed to break 60 at ACC.
Reaves and Wigington were on pace in 2002 when they shot 58-56 in the first two rounds, but they were only 5-under at the Country Club.
“You’ve both got to have six or seven birdies apiece and luck up and not have them be the same hole,” McGatha said. “It’s not easy.”
Negotiating ACC’s challenging greens may be the key to shooting 40 for the entire weekend, but the key to winning the tournament — in at least one contender’s eye — is the modified scramble round at Cider Ridge. A hybrid of the other two formats, a team choose its best drive then plays their own ball through the green.
Daniel Glidewell and his partner — now Silver Lakes assistant pro Brennan Clay — have finished in the top three each of the last three years. Although it could be argued they let it get away last year through a crucial lapse in judgement on the 53rd green, they missed a chance to make a big move in the middle round. In 2010, after grabbing a share of the first-round lead, they shot 9-under in Oxford to fall off the pace. Last year, they shot 13-under there, but were only 1-under through their first four holes after rising late and rushing to the first tee without warming up.
“If I had to pick a round, a shot, a day, Saturday is where you win the golf tournament,” he said. “You don’t win it on Sunday unless you shoot nothing and you don’t win it on the first day no matter what. You could shoot 20 on the first day (and) you haven’t won the golf tournament. We haven’t lost it on Saturday, but we very easily could’ve won it on Saturday. I think I’m going to Brennan let’s have fun the first night but not go crazy. You never know what can happen Sunday, but let’s not lose the golf tournament on Saturday because we had too much fun Friday night.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.