Golf's Magic Number
Only four professional golfers are members of the most exclusive club in the game: a 59 in official competition
From the Print Edition:
Hugh Grant, November/December 2009
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The night before he went to a cocktail party and met a gentleman who wanted to know if Geiberger still ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches during his round, something he had become famous for. "He said he made the best peanut butter crackers you have ever eaten and he said he lived on the 14th hole at Colonial," says Geiberger. "He said 'Can I bring you some tomorrow?' I said sure, but you [have to] promise you will bring them. I had people promise before and then they didn't show and I went hungry." As Geiberger waited on the tee, the man kept his word and provided fuel for the rest of Geiberger's round. On the 15th hole, Geiberger began a run of four straight birdies to close out the first nine with a 30. Luck was with him on the first hole (his 10th), a long par 5. He hit two mighty shots, but his 3-wood second shot finished about 20 yards off the green. From there he pitched in for an eagle three. He made birdie on the next two holes. "Who is to say that the peanut butter crackers don't work?" says Geiberger. "I was eight under par on seven holes after the crackers."
He made a birdie on the sixth hole and while thoughts of going low were creeping into his head, there were other thoughts that distracted him. "You have to remember it was 102, hot and miserable. That helped me, because I didn't care what I shot," says Geiberger. "I was trying to get through the round without collapsing. That keeps your mind off the score, because when you think about what you are scoring, everything seems to come to a halt."
His 16th hole of the day, a par 5, returned near the clubhouse. By now the stands around the green were full with fans who knew what was happening. He wedged his third shot to eight feet. "I walked up to the green, hotter than hell," says Geiberger. "There was no air to breathe. This is where I looked back and saw how unbelievable my day was. I had this eight-footer. I hit the putt and it had gone a foot when I knew I had made it. I turned around and raised my arms looking at the crowd, not looking at the ball, which was pretty stupid. I watched the people explode out of the stands up into the air."
He now was 12 under par with two holes to play. One more stroke under par, one more birdie, and he would have the magic number. It came on the last hole, a modest par 4. He hit a 9-iron to eight feet and there wasn't any doubt that the putt would go in. When it did, he entered the history books and the American golf psyche. He was the first, he was Mr. 59 (you might guess his stationery, his cell phone number and license plate include that precious number.)
"People still want to hear about it," says Geiberger. "When I first shot it, I was thinking nobody wants to hear about anybody's round of golf. I would avoid telling them. I would tell a little bit, keep it short. Then I realized that people want to hear every shot because they had shot their low round and were choking to death when they got near it and they want to hear what I felt like when I was shooting it." And now he tells the story again and again, with a well-earned sense of pride.
For Chip Beck, his 59 in the 1991 Las Vegas Invitational is a high mark in a modest PGA Tour career that included three Tour titles and then a precipitous fall from the Tour that began in the middle 90s. The one thing that mitigated his disastrous career slide was that he was the second player to post a 59. "When I was playing my worst golf and my career nearly ended, I remember thinking, how did you do that?" says Beck.
Well, this is how. The Las Vegas Invitational was a 90-hole pro-am event played on several courses. Beck was slated to play the Sunrise Golf Club in the third round. He had putted on the practice green the night before, but he had never played the course. He did remember that his friend and fellow pro John Cook had said that Sunrise was ripe for scoring. He said someone might shoot a 59. The new course was less than 7,000 yards and the greens were rolling nicely. The rough was kept short so that the amateurs wouldn't get lost it in. Beck, too, began his historic round on the back nine. He whipped off seven birdies to post a 29 at the turn. He remembers a hole marshal calling out to him. "Hey Chip, that's two shots better than anyone else. Keep it up and you'll shoot 59."
He birdied the first two holes to start the back nine and get to nine under par with seven holes to play. Though the course was playing easy, there was an added pressure to the round. That year there was a $1 million bonus for any player who shot a 59. Half would go to him and half would go to charity. That was a lot of money to be playing for, even in those days of escalating purses.
Then the birdie barrage came to a halt. Nothing was going wrong, but over the next four holes he couldn't make a birdie putt. If he were going to shoot the 59, he would have to do it by making birdie on the last three holes. And that's exactly what he did. He hit the par-5 seventh hole (his 16th) in two and two-putted. Then he got lucky. His 5-iron to the par-3 eighth hole was off target, but hit a mound off the green and bounced back to eight feet. He made that one for a deuce. On the par-4 ninth, a 443-yarder, he hit a fine drive that left him an 8-iron shot to the green. As he had all day, he put a smooth swing on it, and the ball came to rest four feet past the hole. With history and a million bucks on the line, he stroked it in. He achieved his 59 without an eagle on a par 5. Just 13 well holed birdies. "It seemed pretty easy at the time," says Beck.
When he ran into Al Geiberger after posting his 59, he remembers Geiberger saying, "I'm Mr. 59."
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