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It is a feat so rare that it can forever define how a player communicates with the outside world. The first man to do it on the PGA Tour, Al Geiberger, has a phone number ending in 5959. The second player to shoot golf's magic number carries an e-mail prefix of ChipBeck59. The fifth and most recent fellow to shoot a 59 on Tour, Stuart Appleby, is researching vanity license plates that will include the score that now defines him. "It is something that follows you forever," says Geiberger, still spry at age 73. "How many U.S. presidents have there been? [Forty-four.] How many players have won a Masters? [Forty-four.]" Point taken.
The 59 club may be golf's most exclusive, but in 2010 the number came under siege as never before. Since Geiberger's Bannisteresque breakthrough in 1977, a 59 had been shot about once a decade: Chip Beck in '91, David Duval in '99, Paul Goydos in July 2010. But it was only 24 days after Goydos's 59 that Appleby shot his, ending a torrid stretch in which three other Tour players fired 60s and Ryo Ishikawa shot a 58 on the Japanese PGA Tour. For more than 30 years the 59 has been golf's ultimate symbol of mastery, even as the game's equipment, playing fields and athletes have evolved dramatically. Last year's barrage of crazy-low scores raises the question: Is a 59 still a 59?
Geiberger's historic achievement came during the second round of the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic. It was played under lift, clean and place, not because of rain but because of Colonial Country Club's spotty fairways. "What grass there was was new and tight, and it was hard to find a place to get a really good lie," Geiberger wrote in his book Tempo. He was 39 and nearing the end of a productive Tour career that would see him win 11 times, including the 1966 PGA Championship. He went to Memphis having missed the cut in his previous two tournaments, one by a lone stroke after he blew a three-footer on the 36th hole. He was so discouraged that he didn't touch a club during the week before Memphis. But once he showed up, his caddie, Lee Lynch, gave him a putting tip, and Geiberger felt a little surge of confidence during the first round.
He began the second round on the back nine. Geiberger birdied two of his first four holes, and then on number 14 he was standing over an eight-footer for birdie when a fire truck roared by. He backed off but then missed the putt, and smoke was pouring out of his ears as he idled on the tee of the 15th hole, a 200-yard par-3. Geiberger was known as Skippy for the peanut-butter sandwiches he was always eating on the course; on the 15th tee a friend handed him five peanut-butter crackers, and thus fortified, he laced a three-iron to 15 feet and made the putt. Birdies at the next three holes followed, and Geiberger made the turn in 30. On number 1, a 582-yard par-5, he holed a 30-yard pitch for an eagle. Geiberger was aware that the Tour record for most under-par holes in a row was eight and matching that feat was his consuming thought as he rolled in an 18-footer on the 2nd and a 20-footer on the 3rd. The streak ended on the next hole, a par-4, where Geiberger missed a 13-footer. He suddenly felt drained—by the June heat and the intensity with which he had been pursuing the record. Geiberger parred number 5 and remained at 10 under par with four to play. He needed three more birdies to shoot 59, but that was not yet on his mind. To that point there had been seven rounds of 60 in Tour history but none since Sam Snead's in 1957. No, Geiberger was simply hoping to match his career low of 61, shot in a casual round at La Cumbre Country Club, his home course in Santa Barbara, Calif.
On Colonial's 6th hole Geiberger split the fairway with a three-wood, knocked a pitching wedge to 13 feet and made the putt. (For the day he hit every fairway and green.) His gallery had been steadily growing throughout the round, and when the birdie putt disappeared, a chant suddenly rang out: "Fif-ty nine! Fif-ty nine! Fif-ty nine!" Says Geiberger, "On the 6th tee the crowd was still going crazy, and I thought, What the hell have I gotten myself into? Holy criminy, what do I do now? I honestly thought about making a bogey to release the tension." Instead he thought of his former coach at USC, Stan Wood. "Mentally, how do you let yourself go lower? I can't explain it," Geiberger says. "I'm not sure I even understand it. Sometimes you have to play tricks on yourself. So I decided I'd play the last three holes for Coach Wood. He had always told me I needed to be more aggressive on the course. So I decided that's how I'd play the last three holes. If I screwed up, it would be his fault, not mine."
On the par-5 7th hole Geiberger produced three textbook shots and nailed a nine-footer for birdie. Twelve under par. On the long par-4 8th hole, his five-iron came up 20 feet short and he missed the putt. So it all came down to number 9, a 403-yard par-4, dogleg left. Geiberger took a fearless line off the tee and flew the bunker on the inside of the dogleg. (Minus the adrenaline, he landed in the trap in each of the next two rounds.) From 122 yards he smoothed a three-quarter nine-iron eight feet left of the hole. The event was not televised, but a local TV crew filmed Geiberger's final hole. He says the tape was destroyed in a fire, and he has never seen footage of himself draining the putt. But it lives in his mind's eye: "Uphill, a little left to right. It dove right in the center. What a great feeling!" Geiberger won without shooting a round in the 60s (72-59-72-70).
The set of mostly Spalding clubs Geiberger used are as outdated as black-and-white TV. His highest lofted wedge was 56 degrees. His steel driver shaft was 43½ inches long—now they're two to three inches longer—with a little wooden head. "I don't even know the loft," he says. "We never talked about that stuff. If I had to guess, I'd say nine degrees." During his 59 Geiberger used the same Ben Hogan brand balata ball for all 18 holes. "Boy, did that thing get up in the air and spin," he says, not entirely fondly.
Fourteen years later Beck was using the same model of ball. The vagaries of the manufacturing process were such that he carried a metal ring and would test the roundness of every ball. A surprisingly high number didn't pass muster. Beck's Ping driver had a metal head and a steel shaft one quarter of an inch longer than Geiberger's. Beck was carrying an old-school one-iron but also a 60-degree lob wedge, a game changer that had been popularized in the 1980s. In Beck's mind the biggest technological advance he benefited from was the frequency-matched shafts in his Hogan Apex irons. "Early in my career I was using a regular women's shaft and didn't even know it," says Beck, who reached the Tour in 1979, the year of Geiberger's final victory.
By 1990 Beck had become one of the top Americans, winning three times and taking the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average on Tour in '88. Earnest and relentlessly positive, he emerged as an unlikely team leader during the combative 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, where he scored a crucial singles victory over Ian Woosnam, who at the time was No. 1 in the World Ranking. A week and a half later Beck turned up for the Las Vegas Invitational, which was contested on three courses. On the 1st hole he fatted a seven-iron to the front of the green and then canned the ensuing 60-footer. "Kiawah was such a grueling week, with all that pressure and that brutal course," says Beck, 54. "I was pretty beat up when I got to Las Vegas. Making that putt put me in such a good frame of mind, and that lasted the whole week."
For his third round Beck journeyed to Sunrise Golf Club, which had opened a mere 10 months earlier. Its generous fairways were lined by saplings and a five o'clock shadow of rough. At 6,914 yards Sunrise was more than three football fields shorter than the layout Geiberger had torched. "All week long there had been talk that someone might shoot a 59 there," Beck recalls. He got a jump on it with an opening 29, having begun the round on the 10th tee. For Beck the key moment was not one of the seven birdies but the 20-foot par putt he rattled in on 16.