Now when he appears at a corporate golf outing, Geiberger hands out souvenir golf balls and business cards with the 59 scorecard reproduced on them. Fans still seek him out, 12 years later, to tell him where they were and what they were doing when they heard about his 59—"kind of like you remember how you heard about John F. Kennedy getting shot," he says.
People have only to look at Geiberger's smile-creased face to know he is approachable. "Al is the nicest guy you'll find walking around," says Lou Graham, a fellow pro who has known him for 30 years. Rafe Botts, a Senior tour player whom Geiberger has been helping with his game, says, "He's a giver, not a taker. I couldn't possibly afford to pay him for the amount of time he has spent with me."
A caddie has a different perspective, especially when his meal ticket has just shot an 80 (a "snowman," in caddie language), as Geiberger did in the first round of a tournament in February. Kim ("I'd rather you didn't use my last name") has caddied for Geiberger since he joined the Senior tour. "He's a very pleasant man to work for," says Kim, "but he comes off a triple bogey, and he still has time to say hello to everybody. I can't handle that. I'd like to work for a player who has the intensity of Bruce Crampton and the relaxed attitude of Al Geiberger. But nobody is like that."
There's probably a little Bruce Crampton in every golfer; some simply hide it better than others. Geiberger hides it completely. "Al's one of my favorite playing partners," says Graham. "He plays hard, and he never complains. He just goes along on an even keel. That's why he's been able to perform year after year."
In 1978 a physical exam turned up a growth that required the removal of a section of Geiberger's colon. He returned to the Tour in February 1979, and that May he won the Colonial National Invitation, but within a year the problem recurred.
Finally, at the 1980 Jerry Ford tournament in Vail, Colo., the pain became so acute that emergency surgery was performed. A mass of polyps, the size of a small fist, was found to be blocking his colon. Back in Santa Barbara, doctors, who told him he was flirting with cancer, performed a procedure called an ileostomy and removed his entire colon.
Geiberger's initial reaction to the prospect of dependence on an external pouch for eliminating body waste was depression. "They showed me this appliance, and I thought it meant the end of normal life, the end of golf certainly," he says. "I figured it was better than being six feet under, but not much."
Two events changed his outlook. One was learning from former Tour pro Tony Sills, who also had undergone an ileostomy, about a new appliance made by ConvaTec. "It was kind of like the Top-Flite ball," says Geiberger. "It beat the market by 10 years." The other was hearing from a hospital nurse that Rolf Benirschke, the field goal kicker for the San Diego Chargers at the time, had had an ileostomy. "Boy, did that pick me up," says Geiberger.
Now Geiberger and Benirschke are spokesmen for ConvaTec and cochairmen of the National Foundation for Ileitis and Colitis Sports Council. "I wasn't going to talk about it," says Geiberger, "but I realized it was no big deal and I could probably help a lot of people."
The one he couldn't help was himself. He was 45 years old, his second marriage was heading for a divorce that would prove to be very expensive, he had three children and two stepchildren to support, and his income from the PGA Tour wasn't even covering expenses. Furthermore, he would not be eligible for the Senior tour, which Lee Trevino has called "the biggest mulligan in golf," for another five years.