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Golf's Magic Number

Only four professional golfers are members of the most exclusive club in the game: a 59 in official competition
Jeff Williams
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.

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Comments   2 comment(s)

tim mohan — Royal Oak, MI, USA,  —  September 21, 2013 4:36pm ET

I know this is about the PGA and LPGA, but not including than legendary Canadian golfer, Moe Norman, who shot 59 not once but 3 times in tournament play is a travesty. He is considered the greatest ball striker in the history of golf. He also sunk 17 hole in ones and set 30 course records.

David Savona September 22, 2013 4:27pm ET

Your comment jogged my memory. We covered Mo Norman quite some time ago, and his story is quite eye-opening. Here is the link:

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