News & Opinion

40 years ago, Geiberger’s 59 broke barrier

If the golf ball that Al Geiberger used to make history on June 10, 1977, ever resurfaces – it was on display at the World Golf Hall of Fame but went missing along with the scorecard – he’ll recognize it.

Sharpies hadn’t caught on as a way for a player to distinguish his ball. “Some guys used a little fingernail polish or something, but it was awkward,” Geiberger said. “The covers were soft. You’d take a pencil and leave a little hole somewhere. I put one or two dots in the dimple over the ‘n’ in ‘Hogan.’ ”

During an era when wound, balata-covered balls were knocked out of round or scuffed easily, it was rare for a player to putt out on his 18th hole with the same ball with which he had teed off on No. 1. But the second round of the Danny Thomas-Memphis Classic 40 years ago was no ordinary day. Geiberger kept his “Hogan 1” and its understated identifying mark in play the entire Friday afternoon at Colonial Country Club in Memphis, Tenn., where he became the first golfer to shoot a sub-60 round on the PGA Tour.

Geiberger’s 59 wasn’t matched on the PGA Tour for 14 years, when Chip Beck shot one in Las Vegas, and wasn’t bettered until Jim Furyk’s 58 at the 2016 Travelers Championship.

The PGA Tour’s first 59 was a long time in coming. The 18-hole scoring record had been 60 since Al Brosch shot it in the 1951 Texas Open at Brackenridge Park Golf Course in San Antonio, a score matched six times thereafter, the last by Sam Snead in the 1957 Dallas Open.

Colonial was one of the least likely places to break 60. It was a par 72 of 7,193 yards with grainy Bermudagrass greens. There were 28 rounds in the 60s the day of Geiberger’s 59, but the next-best score was Raymond Floyd’s 65.

Preferred lies were in effect as a result of a rough winter and bare areas, primarily in the valleys between tees and landing areas. “The fairways where we were hitting from were pure Bermuda, and there was no mud on the ball,” Geiberger said in a recent interview. “I don’t remember touching the ball; there was no need. I think the Tour staff would have had to line so many areas in those dips off the tees that they decided to play lift, clean and place.”

With lifer-looper Lee Lynch alongside, Geiberger, then 39, teed off on Colonial’s 10th hole at 12:32 p.m. Central Time with Dave Stockton and Jerry McGee. Geiberger, using a Ping Pal that he had acquired because he had seen fellow pro Rod Funseth putt so well with that model, sank a 40-foot birdie on his first hole but was only two under through five holes.

Then his round began to heat up like the temperature, which soared into the 90s with humidity. Bob Green, the late longtime golf writer for The Associated Press, described Geiberger in his story later that day as “slow moving and seemingly casual under a broiling sun…”

Geiberger birdied four consecutive holes, making the turn in 6-under 30. On his 10th hole, a par 5, he pitched in from 30 yards for an eagle. Geiberger was the rare golfer carrying three wedges in 1977, a ConSole, concave-sole design that debuted in 1973 serving as his gap club between Spalding pitching wedge and Wilson R-90 sand iron.

The eagle was followed by birdies from 18 and 20 feet, putting Geiberger 10 under with six holes left. “Lee was hard to shut up, one of those characters, but as things got going well, we talked less,” Geiberger says. “As the round went on, things got a little quieter and more serious. We didn’t have all the extra bulls—t.”

Following pars on his 13th and 14th holes, Geiberger, feeling drained from the heat and humidity, vowed to regain his mojo, recalling advice from his golf coach at Southern Cal, Stan Wood, to be more aggressive than his inclination for caution. The self-talk worked: He sank birdies of 13 and 8 feet on his 15th and 16th holes, respectively. On the latter, a par 5, his adrenalin was pumping.

“I was starting to feel a little invincible, hitting it a little farther,” said Geiberger, who didn’t miss a fairway or green. “On my 16thhole, I usually had about a hundred yards for my third shot, but I was much closer to the green that day.”

Geiberger parred his 17th hole and needed a birdie at the last for 59. A 9-iron to 8 feet put him in good position, although the putt was slightly uphill, with grain going into him and from left to right. “I remember thinking, Don’t leave this putt short,” Geiberger said. “I felt like I hit it so hard it went off in my hand, but it just dove in.”

Two days later, after a final-nine rally, Geiberger won the tournament by three strokes over Gary Player and McGee. It was the next-to-last of his 11 tour titles. He turns 80 in September, the record no longer his but his place in golf history secure. 

Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: williamhfields@gmail.com; Twitter: @BillFields1

 

Sub-60 scores on the PGA Tour

ScorePlayerTournamentRoundFinish
58Jim Furyk2016 Travelers Championship4thT-5
59Adam Hadwin2017 CareerBuilder Challenge3rd2nd
59Justin Thomas2017 Sony Open1stWon
59Jim Furyk2013 BMW Championship2nd3rd
59Stuart Appleby2010 Greenbrier Classic4thWon
59Paul Goydos2010 John Deere Classic1st2nd
59David Duval1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic5thWon
59Chip Beck1991 Las Vegas Invitational3rdT-3
59Al Geiberger1977 Danny Thomas-Memphis Classic2ndWon