Greatest Round(s) in Colonial History
When celebrating a momentous anniversary, it is only natural to reminisce about great moments in our history.  Exciting years, great champions, scoring records, etc., all come to mind.  Comparing player performances and champions across the years are inevitable, and can become great sources of debate. One particular subject: is it even possible to determine the greatest round in our 75-year history?

About 18 months ago, a Golf Digest writer set out to examine the data, and arguably determine, the Greatest Single Round in PGA TOUR History. The PGA TOUR’s sophisticated SHOTlink system elevates the opportunity of objective assessment of scoring performances. However, coming up with the “greatest round” can still be problematic and subjective.

To address the issues of quantifying different courses of differing toughness, different pars, as well as varying weather conditions, the writer focused on a key SHOTlink stat known as “Strokes Gained Total.”   This stat compares one player’s round to the rest of the field on that given day. In other words, how much better was a player’s round than the average score of the entire field in that same round?  Just because a player went very low one day doesn’t matter as much if most of the field also went low.  

Another consideration: there are fewer rounds to average on the weekend, versus Thursday and Friday. Averages for rounds one and two, and thus the Strokes Gained stat, are arguably skewed higher due to the scores of players who aren’t playing well, and ultimately miss the cut. Also, isn’t it reasonable to assume that there is greater pressure on the weekend for a player in contention, versus Thursday afternoon? In other words, isn’t a 63 shot on the weekend by a player in contention better than a 63 shot Thursday morning, stipulating that weather and course playing conditions were relatively equal?

    To illustrate, based solely on the purely objective Strokes Gained stat, Jim Furyk’s PGA TOUR 18-hole record 58 in the 2016 Travelers Championship doesn’t event make the top 10 of greatest single rounds on the PGA Tour, statistically. But his 59 at the 2013 BMW Championship ranks #1 (12 strokes better than the field average). And second on the list is a 64 by George Burns in the 1983 Kemper Open, surpassing every other 59 on the books and hundreds of scores in the 60-63 range over the years. (The Golf Digest writer was limited to 37 years of history for his project, back to 1983 when all scoring data from all tournaments is available.)

Third on the list is a 63 fired by Gary Player in the 1984 PGA Championship in the second round, 11.4 shots better than the field average that day. 

While the Strokes Gained stat by itself is a powerful indicator, it is still only a starting point. For the “greatest” round, we still need to apply subjective criteria such as: which round was it in?  was the player in contention?  how strong was the field?   The Golf Digest writer applied this subjective criteria to argue that Rory McIlroy’s 62 in the final round of the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship against top competition was the Greatest Round in PGA Tour History.   Statistically, in the Strokes Gained category, it ranked 5th all-time since 1983. His 62 was 10.714 strokes lower than the field’s average score on that Sunday. Rory received credit from the writer for nearly 1.5 shots extra because it was in the final round, in contention against a very strong field. And he won the event.

When taking this exercise to just one tournament like Colonial, and one course, some of the complicating variables go away. All scores were made on the same course with the same par.  Remaining variables to consider when comparing one day’s score to another in any given year include the weather, the round, and if the player was in contention – under much greater pressure and battling other top players.

In Colonial’s case, we have the unique opportunity to apply the Strokes Gained formula to all rounds back 75 years to 1946!  However challenging, we can try to compare the great rounds of Ben Hogan, Tommy Bolt, Dave Stockton and Arnold Palmer to those of Hale Irwin, Lee Trevino, Nick Price, Tom Watson, Adam Scott and Justin Rose. But can we possibly account for the incredible differences in course conditioning and equipment that exist across that 75-year spectrum?  More subjectivity.

Statistically, using the Strokes Gained formula only, three players shot rounds in Colonial history that were more than 9 strokes lower than the field average that day.  Interestingly, all occurred during the third round. Ranked #1 is Texan Chad Campbell’s course record-tying 61 in 2004. It was a windy, dry year at the event, with the course playing fast but difficult. Campbell’s round was 9.405 strokes lower than the field average.  Amazingly, his day included two bogeys!  The round tied him for the 54-hole lead. (He shot 68 the next day and placed second.)

Ranked #2 was the 61 by 2003 champion Kenny Perry in the third round of that year. Even though this was a low-scoring tournament for all players, Perry’s 61 was 9.316 strokes lower than the field average on Saturday.   That put his 54-hole total lower than the existing 72-hole tournament record! It also gave him a record 8-shot lead at that stage, and he coasted in Sunday with a 68 and new 72-hole record of 19-under par.
Coming in third place statistically is a 1970 round by Dale Douglass, when he shot the first 63 ever recorded during the tournament. This was a very big deal at the time, because it lowered the 18-hole record by 2 shots over the previous record 65 set in 1946 and held by Ben Hogan for 24 years.  Douglass, an Oklahoma native, was coming off his best year ever in 1969, including a spot on the ’69 Ryder Cup team.
Thinking back to the Golf Digest article, however, and focusing on low winning rounds on Sunday, we wanted to find the highest-ranked Strokes Gained round at Colonial that came in the 4th round by a champion.  Voila!   Not surprisingly it comes from our own Ben Hogan, in his incredible year of 1953 when he cemented his legacy as one of the greatest golfers of all time.  

1953 was the year the Colonial clubhouse burned down a month before the tournament, and the event went on without the building. The top nine money winners anchored a stellar field, which contained 17 tournament winners since the previous year’s Colonial.  Windy conditions prevailed, and the scoring was very high from the beginning. Only 10 players broke par for 18 holes the entire week! Thirteen players shot a round of 80 or higher.  At the 54-hole mark Hogan was tied for the lead, and nine players lurked within two shots.  

The field average for 44 players that difficult final Sunday was 75.409. Winds were steady from 20-30 miles per hour on the 90-degree day.  In those conditions, with the tournament on the line, Hogan went out and shot the low round of the weekend, a masterful 67. Only two other players even broke par, each shooting one-under 69.  He won by 5 shots.   Hogan beat the field average by 8.409 strokes. 

“Anybody that shoots 67 out there today is a miracle,” claimed Fred Hawkins after finishing his 74. “I don’t believe it can be done.”   Hogan himself said later, “I don’t believe it either.”
This is where the subjectivity comes in. As the Golf Digest writer claimed: championship winning rounds on Sunday deserve some ‘extra credit’ when reviewing the Strokes Gained stats and determining the greatest rounds in history. Consider it the golf equivalent of “degree of difficulty” seen applied in many Olympic sports. That 8.4 stroke differential of Hogan’s round places him 14th on the objective Strokes Gained all-time Colonial list. The Golf Digest writer gave McIlroy almost 1.5 shots extra credit, and that same consideration would easily move Hogan above Chad Campbell’s round.

In this particular case in 1953, also knowing the physical hardship and pain Hogan went through every single time he played golf in the 1950s, after his near-fatal car wreck, the ‘degree of difficulty’ assigned to that Sunday performance should be high.  This writer has no problem declaring his 1953 Sunday round as a top contender for the Greatest Single Round in Colonial history.

But let’s not stop there. We have two other final rounds by champions in Colonial history that rank in the 25 all-time Strokes Gained category. They certainly deserve review and consideration as well.

In 2001, a young Sergio Garcia stood five shots back of defending champion Phil Mickelson after 54 holes. Sunday conditions featured wind and fast fairways. Nonetheless, Garcia blistered the front nine with a 6-under 29, one off the course record. Only one of his birdies came from outside seven feet. The exclamation point came on #9 with an approach to six inches. Still, that didn’t do the trick, as Mickelson birdied four of the first seven holes himself.   
Garcia kept it together on the back nine, adding one more birdie to finish with a 63 and steal the title from Mickelson, whose putter went cold. Garcia’s score bested the field average that day by 8.141 strokes. His 63 remains the lowest final round by a Colonial champion, and has been shot only one other times (ironically by Mickelson).

“The way the course was playing, it was pretty windy and the fairways were really firm,” Garcia stated. “It was just tough. I played really well, but I played smart, too.”  Indeed, he hit 13 of 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens in his bogey-free performance.

Garcia’s round also beat out competitors such as Justin Leonard, Tom Lehman, David Toms, Corey Pavin and Vijay Singh that day. At age 21 he became Colonial’s youngest champion, and the first ever from Europe. Also of note for this discussion – this was his very first appearance at Colonial. There is a whole lot of ‘degree of difficulty’ in there. Consideration of 1.5 shots, as with Hogan, also propels this round above the 2004 Campbell round.

In 1994, Nick Price staged the biggest final round comeback in Colonial history. After 54 holes, he trailed leader Scott Simpson by seven shots. The hot Simpson was four shots clear of the field, and most everyone expected the 1987 U.S. Open champ to waltz in with the title on Sunday. But Price and two-time U.S. Open winner Hale Irwin slowly gained ground on Simpson during the final round. Due to a soggy course, lift-clean-and-place rules were played, seeming to hurt Price in this greatest round discussion. However, remember the statistic is only about a player’s score relative to the field on that day under the same conditions. 
The bigger issue Sunday afternoon was that players were battling a tricky wind, Colonial’s primary defense. “It was absolutely a different course today than it has been all week,” noted 1967 champion Dave Stockton.  Two-time champion Bruce Lietzke agreed. “It was certainly tougher on the scores today,” he observed. “I would say that today this course was tougher by four strokes.”

“It was unbelievable,” grumped Mark Carnevale. “It seemed different on every hole. There’s nothing wrong with wind, as long as it comes from the same direction. But this . . . ”  Leader Simpson himself remarked, “The pins were tucked. The course was playing hard.”

It was with those conditions that Price charge from behind, along with Hale Irwin, trying to reel in Simpson.  After two front-nine birdies, Price got hot with three straight birdies on the back nine, but then an approaching storm ended the round with 18 players still on the course at 6:17 pm.  Price was only two shots back with five to play, but would the delay rob him of momentum and end his dramatic charge?  What about Irwin, now only one shot behind Simpson, and still ahead of Price? This round just got a whole lot harder, in terms of ‘degree of difficulty.’

“I didn’t want to leave the course,” said Price. “Now I’ve got to re-think everything, because conditions will be different. I guess it comes down to who adapts best.”

On Monday morning at the 9 am re-start, Price amazingly picked up right where he left off, with birdies on holes 14 and 15, tying the lead. Irwin could not close the deal; he lost his momentum and his feel for the greens. When Simpson putted out for par on 18 and a 71, he and Price went back to the 18th tee for a playoff. 

In spite of the traditional back left Sunday pin placement next to the water, Price promptly went flag-hunting, playing a hook from an angled fairway lie 153 yards away. “My attitude was do-or-die,” he claimed. “I did go for the flag. I wasn’t going to play safe anywhere.” 

His approach stopped eight feet away, and Price sank the birdie to complete the greatest final round comeback ever by a Colonial champion. His 64 was 7.945 strokes better than the field that final round.  The initial stroke deficit, the tricky wind - and an overnight delay – add a lot of difficulty to that final round. Consideration here of 1.5 strokes, like Hogan’s round, is also enough to rank this round above Campbell’s.

Given these considerations, all three of those incredible performances can reasonably be elevated to the status of the greatest rounds in Colonial history!  Hogan first, Price a close second, and then Garcia third. Campbell, Perry and Douglas can settle for fourth, fifth and sixth place.   Let the debate begin.   Below is a chart showing the greatest rounds in Colonial history.