The temperature in the desert topped out at 107° on Aug. 26, 1988, typical for California's Coachella Valley in summer. Late that afternoon Carolyn Geiberger was preparing to take her sons, Matthew, 2, and Al Jr., 8 months, and her stepson, Bryan, 11, around the corner to the small swimming pool that serves the residents of Los Lagos, a housing development in Indian Wells, near Palm Springs. The baby was in his crib, Bryan was watching television in the living room, and Carolyn was in the bathroom getting ready when Matthew, barefoot and wearing a bathing suit, passed unnoticed through the living room and out the front door. Carolyn had had a safety latch installed on the door, but the cleaning woman had forgotten to reset it earlier in the day. The little boy found his way across the deserted street, around the corner, past the windows of a dozen houses, across a wooden footbridge and, finally, onto the hot pavement surrounding the inviting turquoise water of the unfenced pool.
Meanwhile, in Lexington, Ky., the first round of the Bank One Classic was complete," and senior golfer Al Geiberger was whiling away the time between dinner and sleep by window-shopping in a mall with John, his 20-year-old son, who was caddying for him. One of the nice things about the Senior tour is that sons can caddie. On the PGA Tour they rarely are old enough. Geiberger might have returned sooner to his hotel, where the red light on his telephone was flashing in an empty room, but he stopped to buy Patagonia jackets for himself and Carolyn. He had in mind wearing the jackets at the new house they were building for their family in the Santa Ynez Valley near Santa Barbara. "I went back and forth—what size? what color?" says Geiberger. "What a stupid decision to be making when your child is dying."
Carolyn found Matthew within minutes and ran home with him, on legs that threatened to crumple under her, to call for help, but it was too late. In the ambulance an emergency crew established a heartbeat, which was maintained artificially until Al could get home the next afternoon. Then the support equipment was removed, and the short life of Matthew Geiberger ended. "They did it so I would experience it, not just hear about how it was," says Geiberger.
When Geiberger turned 50 on Sept. 1, 1987, thereby becoming eligible for the Senior tour, it seemed the hard times were over. He had been through two bad marriages, years of bad health and financial desperation. But his golf swing was as pretty and as sound as ever, and his desire to compete, which had waned after too many years of not winning, was fresh again. He had a new wife, a one-year-old baby and another one on the way, and the bright prospect of a second chance in a sport that had been his life.
Geiberger hit the fairways of the Senior tour running. He won three of the dozen tournaments remaining on the schedule that fall and finished in the top 10 seven times. His prize money at the end of the year, $264,798, was $70,000 more than he had earned in 1976, his best year of 28 on the PGA Tour.
"He's a better player than he thinks he is," says Jim Blakely, the director of instruction at Desert Horizons in Indian Wells. "He has the best swing on any tour. He's sound mechanically, and that is enhanced by near-perfect tempo." When Al was 15, recalls Blakely, he was "a gangly kid with a loose, high school golf swing." At the time, Blakely was the pro at the Montecito Country Club in Santa Barbara. Ray and Mabel Geiberger, both avid golfers, had just moved there from Sacramento with their three sons. "Al takes after his father," says Blakely. "Ray was an admired man, a gentleman. I never heard a bad word spoken about him, and that's really unusual at a golf club, especially as he was chairman of the greens committee."
From Santa Barbara High, Al went to Menlo College and then to USC, where he played No. 1 on the golf team for two years, winning 34 of 36 matches. At the end of Geiberger's first season as a touring pro, a PGA official wrote in a news release, "Easily the best player to join the PGA Tour in 1960 was slender, self-effacing Al Geiberger, 22."
From 1960 to '65 Geiberger won three tournaments, and in 1966 he won the PGA. For the next eight years, however, he didn't win at all. He continued to play well enough through 1968, but in 1969 his marriage broke up, and he was bothered by an inflamed colon, which had given him periodic trouble since 1966. His game suffered. "Ulcerative proctitis is the name of the disease," says Geiberger. "When it flared up it was very painful, but you lived with it."
In 1973, Geiberger married again, and in 1974 he started winning again—one tournament that year, two the next, two the next. Then, on June 10, 1977, on a steamy Friday in Memphis, Geiberger broke golf's equivalent of the four-minute-mile barrier. With 11 birdies, an eagle and 23 putts on the Bermuda greens of the Colonial Country Club, he shot 29-30-59, a score no golfer in a PGA event has equaled and one which kept his name alive and the bills paid through the harder times to come.
"A great round of golf is a lot like a terrible round," says Geiberger. "You drift into a zone, and it's hard to break out of it. I've always been fairly conservative. If you see me going at the pins, you know I'm really playing well. That day the pressure built and built; everybody on the course was crowding around. I thought, Holy criminy, what have I gotten myself into? But walking to the 15th, I said, 'I'm hitting it so well and putting so well, why not pull out the stops?' [He birdied three of the last four holes.] It also helped that I didn't know 59 would be the record. Stupidity comes in handy at moments of crisis."