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
At the highest echelon of championship golf, there is a very small club. Very small. Tiger Woods isn't a member. Neither is Jack Nicklaus. Neither is Arnold Palmer. Ben Hogan and Sam Snead and Bobby Jones didn't make the grade. Babe Zaharias and Nancy Lopez and Patty Sheehan didn't pass muster. No amount of money or major championships or professional tour victories can get you in.
There is only one key to admit you to Club 59. And that's a 59. Golf's magic number is 59. That's 13 under par on a par 72 course, 12 under on a par 71, 11 under on a par 70. None of the great players just named have ever shot that number in competition. As prodigious as their records are, as many trophies as they have accumulated, there is one scorecard they have never signed: 59. How small is that club? On the PGA Tour and the LPGA Tour a total of four players have shot 59 in competition. Al Geiberger, Chip Beck and David Duval are the PGA members of this exclusive club. Annika Sorenstam is the sole member of the LPGA to make it. Also note that three players have shot 59 on the Nationwide Tour, the PGA Tour's stepping-stone circuit: Jason Gore, Notah Begay and Doug Dunakey have turned in official 59s. Phil Mickelson also carded a 59 in the PGA Grand Slam of Golf and Shigeki Maruyama actually turned in a 58 in a U.S. Open Qualifying tournament in 2000, but neither is considered an official PGA Tour event.
It takes a brilliant round and more than a little luck to shoot a 59, but Geiberger, Beck, Duval and Sorenstam were positively electric in their historic rounds. None of them holed out on a long shot or scuttled in a long bunker shot or made a putt by way of another zip code.
Each one of them was brilliant, and none more so than Geiberger, the first player to achieve the magic number.
Mr. 59, as he is forever known, entered golf lore in 1977 on a sweltering 100-degree June day in Memphis, Tennessee. He was playing the second round of the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic at the Colonial Country Club, a course that was playing at more than 7,200 yards, a monster length for those days. The greens were old-style Bermuda grass, grainy and bumpy. There just wasn't any indication at all that Colonial could give up the first 59 in golf history.
"People would say 'Did you feel like you were going to shoot 59 that day?'" recalls Geiberger, now retired from the Champions Tour and living in the Palm Springs area. "I said, are you kidding me? I was choking walking up to the first tee. I was trying to figure out how to make the cut. I shot 72 in the first round and I had to shoot at least another 72 to make the cut. That was my thought. People ask, 'How do you shoot 59?' Well, you don't start out with six straight birdies, because you choke to death the rest of the way, because I've done that. If you stopped me during the middle of the round and asked me how many under par I was, I wouldn't have known. That's a no-no in golf. You don't count your score."
Neither Geiberger nor any of the other members of Club 59 started out thinking they would go super low that day. No matter how well they were playing, no matter how many putts they had been dropping, a 59 just wasn't something they were thinking about on the first tee. Sorenstam once said she had dreamed about shooting 54, about making birdie on every hole, and she thought it was entirely possible. But on the day she shot her 59, she only knew that she had been playing well and was hoping to continue it.
It was the same for Geiberger, a successful PGA touring pro who had won a PGA Championship.
"I made a slight swing change the week before and made a slight change in my putting, an aiming thing," says Geiberger. "Both of those things were starting to work at the same time. Usually you find if the putting works, the shot making doesn't work so good. But I had the luxury of both things working well, and I was hitting the ball better and better every hole and my putting; I was holing everything I looked at."
Geiberger began his round on the 10th hole, a par 4. He holed his most substantial putt of the day there, a 40-footer. He made birdie on the par-3 12th and had made two pars on the other holes as he stood on the 14th tee, his fifth hole of the round.
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."
"I said Al, that's all right, it's all yours," says Beck.
Now playing occasionally on the Champions Tour, Beck knows that his 59 carried him a long way even after his game went south. "That's the nicest thing that happened in my career," says Beck. "It's what people remember about me. It took on a life of its own."
David Duval talks wistfully about his 59, no doubt because it came during an era when he was the No. 1 player in the world. Like Beck, he has suffered a horrible withering of his game, but unlike Beck he had a lot farther to fall. He was, after all, a winner of the 2001 British Open and a multiple winner on the PGA Tour during the '90s and for a while the No. 1 player in the world. "I don't know if it means that much to me now, but it was a very important part of my career," says Duval, having recently finished a surprising second in the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black where he had held a share of the lead the last round after a birdie at the 16th hole.
Duval's 59 came in the final round of the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic being played on the Palmer Private Course at PGA West. Two weeks before he had won the Mercedes Championship at Kapalua by nine shots. He was at the top of his game, the dominator in dark, wraparound sunglasses. Tiger Woods, though his potential was burning brightly, had yet to take over the golf world.
Now Duval was fighting for the lead in the Bob Hope and shot 31 on the front side to stay in touch with his chief competitor, Steve Pate, who was going neck and neck with him. After six birdies on the back nine, he still trailed by a shot. Then he came to the par-5 18th. He smoked a drive there, then was faced with a shot to a hard and fast green. He hit a 5-iron, playing it to land short and run up to the back shelf. As if on orders, it rolled up to six feet. It was a putt for a win, and a putt for history.
"It was really important to give myself a chance to shoot that 59, because how many chances are you going to have to break 60," says Duval. "At Pebble Beach once I was eight under after seven holes then only made two birdies on the last 11 to shoot 62. I missed a ton of good chances. I could have easily shot 58." This six-footer was a knee knocker. "There might have been more pressure on that putt than if it had been a 25-footer," says Duval. He ran it right in, pumped his fist and walked away with a tournament victory and his slice of history. "It does seem to have diminished over the course of my career," said Duval. "I don't remember being introduced anywhere after that as Mr. 59. I don't believe I'm looked at as a player who shot 59, really. I think I'm looked at as a player who was formerly No. 1 in the world."
There was no disputing Annika Sorenstam's place at the top of the women's game at the turn of the century. She was the most dominant women's player of all time, winning 72 times on the LPGA Tour, including 10 women's majors. She had already won 24 of those events when she came to the Standard Register Ping tournament at the Moon Valley Country Club in March of 2001. She started her second round on the back nine and she ran off eight straight birdies before a par on the 18th for a 28. "I got very nervous after that eighth birdie, but after I made the turn I felt good again," says Sorenstam, who retired after the 2008 season and is expecting her first child. "Then I got four more birdies and my mind started to wander, but I got it back."
Sorenstam had been open about her dreams of shooting a 54. "It came to my mind [on the first nine]," says Sorenstam. "My thought about 54 and I had that dream a long time. People would laugh or giggle when I would say that. This [round] was on its way."
She couldn't quite keep up that pace, but made five birdies on the back nine and came to the 18th already at 13 under par. "When you play in a major, it's a very different feeling," says Sorenstam. "It's more survival. This was more like I'm attacking the pin, I'm attacking the course. There had been 60s and 61s, so shooting that score wouldn't have made a difference."
On the 18th, her caddie cautioned her to play to the middle of the green, a shot that would likely sew up the 59. Sorenstam wanted another birdie, wanted that 58 and was willing to risk bogey for that momentous birdie. "I said no, let's fire straight at it," says Sorenstam.
She knocked it nine feet past the hole. Her putt for 58 had too much pace and rolled three feet by. She wobbled that one in for her 59.
She still gets fan mail today addressed to Miss 59. She's asked to sign autographs with a 59. She used the number 59 on her golf balls and on her hat. Sorenstam, too, met Geiberger sometime afterward and they had a brief, low-key chat about their rounds. She came away with a feeling that very, very few players will ever have.
"You feel like you are part of a little 59 club," Sorenstam says. Yes, and there is only one way to get in.
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.
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