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That rarest of treasures, a round of 59 on the PGA Tour, is almost by definition touched by magic. Shots are outrageously holed from the fairway. Putts drop after traversing the length of tortuous greens. Nervousness is temporarily short-circuited.
"What made the 59 strokes David Duval rode to victory on Sunday in the final round of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic so memorable was that almost all of them were devoid of romance. (The longest shot he holed all day was a 10-foot putt.) Instead, Duval masterfully strung together 11 birdies and one climactic eagle, on the 90th and final hole of the five-round event, to come back from a seven-shot deficit—one off the Tour record for a final-day charge—and beat Steve Pate by a stroke.
"It helped me that this happened when I was trying to win," said Duval, who now has two victories in his first two starts of the 1999 season. "I didn't think about my score until I got to 11 under, on the 16th hole. I just kept trying to make more birdies." The 59 was as close as a round of golf gets to perfection, and the way Duval accomplished it left the impression that it was not necessarily a once-in-a-lifetime achievement.
Of course, getting the stoic, square-jawed Duval to acknowledge the magnificence of what he had just done is probably too much to ask. As he waited by the 18th green for Pate, in the final group, to finish his round on Sunday evening, Duval was approached by his girlfriend, Julie McArthur. She was thrilled at what she had seen over the previous five hours but could sense that Duval was still in combat mode, staying primed for a possible playoff should Pate birdie 18.
"Hi, honey," she said tentatively, a forced calm in her voice. "Hey," Duval grunted back. Acting as if she hadn't seen him hit a shot all day, McArthur said, "How are you?" Duval, with just a hint of a smirk, said, "I'm good."
Despite how little Duval divulges about himself and his aspirations, there is no denying the accuracy of that self-assessment. Duval has won nine of the last 28 tournaments he has entered. Along with his two-stroke victory at the Mercedes Championships to open the season, he's 52 under par after 162 holes in '99 and has already won more than $1 million. Although Tiger Woods is two-tenths of a percentage point ahead of Duval atop the World Ranking, there is no debate among the players about who is No. 1. Some disagree as to whether Duval is the best driver, the best iron player or the best putter, but there is no disagreement on who is the best golfer, and on Sunday Duval may have played the finest round ever.
At first blush that's an outlandish statement. The greatest round is not simply a matter of putting up the lowest number. If that were the case, the two other 59s shot in Tour events—Al Geiberger did it in the second round of the 1977 Memphis Classic, and Chip Beck matched it in the third round of the 1991 Las Vegas Invitational—would be contenders, and they are not. The consensus in the golf world is that the greatest rounds were shot by Hall of Fame players to win major championships on top courses. The list includes Ben Hogan's 67 at Oakland Hills in the '51 U.S. Open, Johnny Miller's 63 at Oakmont in the '73 Open and Jack Nicklaus's 65 at the '86 Masters.
This year's Hope was not such a momentous occasion, except perhaps for Michael Jordan fans. Nor was the 6,950-yard, par-72 Palmer Course at PGA West—though interesting, with five par-5s and five par-3s—a great track. It can also be argued that the 27-year-old Duval cannot be considered a great player until he wins a major. Still, what he did on Sunday was alltime.
First, Duval's was the best of the 59s because it was the only one that came in the final round, and he needed every stroke of it to win the tournament. Geiberger's came under soggy conditions, when players were allowed to pick up their ball in the fairway, and clean and place it in a perfect lie. Beck's 59 was shot at the highly suspect (par 72, 6,914-yard) Sunrise Golf Club, which has subsequently been dropped from the tournament's rotation.
Second, Duval's eagle on the par-5,543-yard 18th was golf theater at its best. After an enormous drive of more than 320 yards (Duval averaged 295.6 yards off the tee last week) to the heart of the fairway, he had 226 yards to the pin, set in the back of a long green guarded by water on the left side. Duval flushed a five-iron that carried about 210 yards, then ran hole-high, six feet from the pin. On a day full of superb shots, the five-iron was Duval's best. As he calmly rolled in the right-to-left breaking putt, Duval let his emotional wraps fall away, uncharacteristically unleashing a series of right crosses before raising his arms in triumph.