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Surely even the most jaded and weary of the world's watchers would have found something extraordinary last Friday in Tennessee, with James Earl Ray suddenly on the lam in the east and Al Geiberger on a more civilized rampage in the west.
The authorities will be a long time totaling up Ray's score, but the other was there for all to see. On June 10, 1977, Al Geiberger, of Santa Barbara, Calif., played the best round of competitive golf in the history of the game, a round so thoroughly competent that it now is the standard against which future rounds will be measured.
What Geiberger did was subdue the Colonial Country Club course near Memphis with a score of 59, the lowest total ever recorded for 18 holes of golf on the PGA tour. ( Homero Blancas, now a tour regular, holds the record for 18 holes over a regulation course; as an amateur, Blancas shot a 15-under-par 55 at Longview, Texas in 1962.)
The overzealous were comparing Geiberger's feat to man's first walk on the moon, then withdrawing the comparison because so much technology and outside assistance were involved in the moon walk. The merely awestruck were calling it one of the most significant athletic achievements of the century, like perfect games and four-minute miles and seven-foot high jumps and Lone Eagles and the first dog to fetch a stick without complaining.
Lots of people—seven to be exact—have played a PGA tournament round in 60. The last person to do so was Sam Snead and, to give you some idea of how easy it is, he did it 20 years ago. Man's first 60 was accomplished by Al Brosch, who is best known as the first golfer to shoot a 60. He did the deed in the 1951 Texas Open at Brackenridge Park, long noted as just about the flattest, most sun-baked piece of real estate in all of San Antonio, if not all of Texas. As a matter of fact, two of the other 60s—by Ted Kroll and Mike Souchak—were also scored at Brackenridge.
However, San Antonio's Brackenridge and Memphis' Colonial are in no way comparable. Revisionists and conspiracy theorists will have to look elsewhere. In 1975 Golf Digest listed Colonial as one of the country's 100 best courses. On a scale of short, medium and long, Brackenridge would fall into the short category, and Colonial, all 7,249 yards of it, into the long. If there was a fluke to be found in Geiberger's feat, perhaps it was in the weather. The lengthy drought had turned Colonial from a plush, lush Southern course into the kind of hard and tight layout usually associated with the desert. Because of the dried-out conditions, winter rules were in effect, and players were permitted to lift, clean and replace their balls in the fairway.
Bert Weaver, a former touring pro who now is the head pro at Colonial, refused to accept "preferred lies" as the explanation for Geiberger's astounding score. "The fairways are so tightly cut, you can't improve your lie," Weaver said. "You can move off dirt and onto grass, but it's still a tight lie because we haven't had any rain. We have three fairways with huge areas not covered with grass, and the rule was put in in case it rained and these areas turned to mud. Just because it is dry, the course doesn't play short like the desert courses. They're short because there's no humidity on them. Colonial played to 90% of its potential. We've resprigged the fairways, and that eliminates a lot of the roll you normally get with drying conditions. Bumping the ball was not the reason the man did what he did. He wedged one in on one hole, he didn't miss a green and he made some long putts. Geiberger is the kind of golfer who could do that if anybody could.
"He has length off the tee, he has the iron play, and he has the putting. It's seldom someone can put all three of them together, but putting them together is no fluke. It was just somebody's turn to do it and Al Geiberger happened to be the man who did. He has to be in the running for athlete of the year. It was just one of those phenomenal things, one of those things you never really expect to happen."
Offsetting any reservations about the winter rules, perhaps, is the fact that Colonial has Bermuda greens, relatively rare items on the pro tour. In fact, Johnny Miller said, "If there was a set of greens I thought you couldn't do that on, it would have been these."
Dudley Green, the Nashville Banner's golf writer, recalled the words of the estimable Woody Piatt, the Pennsylvania golfer who won the first USGA Senior championship: "Only the brave survive on Bermuda," meaning the putts have to be straight and strong. (Piatt was good for other things besides axioms. He once started a round at Pine Valley birdie, birdie, hole in one, eagle—six under after four holes—and might have been on his way to a 49. But he stopped in the clubhouse to celebrate and did not emerge until three days later, when it was determined it was too late to complete the round.) Geiberger, whether aware of Platt's Law or not, did not linger around the greens long enough to test its validity. He needed only 23 putts.