Sport Golf

Sunday 27 May 2018

It's a wonderful world of golf for the game's original Mr 59

Al Geiberger is best known for a day when everything went right, says Dermot Gilleece

At first glance it looked like a fairly ordinary business card until Al Geiberger instructed me to open it. That was when it revealed itself as a miniature folded scorecard from the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic of 1977, carrying the magical total of 59.

As a bonus to my recent meeting with Geiberger, there were his reflections on a visit to Killarney in 1964, when he played Joe Carr on the old Mahony's Point course in an early edition of Shell's Wonderful World of Golf. And he also remembered competing in the Irish Open at Portmarnock in 1979, when he was tied 12th behind Mark James.

"My wife was with me at Killarney on what was the first trip I'd taken outside the US," said the 74-year-old former winner of the PGA Championship, with obvious warmth. "I remember the beauty of the place and how Joe (Carr) was like the Arnold Palmer of Irish golf at the time. And he had this hickory-shafted putter which was all bent and warped and with an old, rusty blade. And I thought I should be able to beat a guy with a putter like that."

Launched in January 1962 and later acclaimed by Americans as the event directly responsible for "when television golf wowed the crowd", the Shell series has been filmed in Ireland on four occasions. The 14th match featured Harry Bradshaw against Billy Casper at Portmarnock in 1963 and the Carr v Geiberger match came in late August 1964, to be followed by Christy O'Connor Snr against Don January at Royal Co Down in 1968. The last one here had Fred Couples playing Tom Watson at Mount Juliet in 1997.

As it happened, O'Connor was originally down to play Geiberger largely because of his involvement as professional at Killarney prior to his move to Royal Dublin in April 1959. On informing the organisers, however, that he would be unable to take part, he was replaced by Carr, sparking quite a rumpus in the Irish Professional Golfers' Association at the time. With typical diplomacy, Carr announced on television that the IPGA Benevolent Fund would be donated his share of the prize fund which proved to be $2,500, quite a substantial sum back then.

Though Carr had his own videotape of the match between two tall men of similarly slender build, he was delighted that the public had the opportunity of viewing it before he died, when it was screened by Sky Sports. "Joe and I played a few holes the day before filming and the match itself lasted two days," recalled Geiberger. "I think we played 11 holes on day one. Gene Sarazen was one of the commentators. It was all very new to me and I didn't play very well. I guess I was nervous. But I remember squaring the match [74 strokes each] with a par on the short 18th beside the lake, where Joe finished with a bogey. He was a real nice guy. In fact, the whole thing was a great experience in a really pretty setting. They made a big fuss of us, taking us into make-up each time before the cameras started rolling."

A month short of his 27th birthday at the time of that visit, Geiberger went on to win the PGA in 1966. It was nearly 11 years later, however, before he attained what would be the highlight of his career, an unprecedented 59 in Memphis, on June 10, 1977. The card, incidentally, was signed by Dave Stockton, who is to receive the PGA of America's Distinguished Service Award this year.

Some have argued that the achievement was diminished by being played under winter rules of lift, clean and place. Any advantage from these concessions, however, has to be set against a course with an overall length of 7,249 yards, when clubheads were persimmon and rubber-core balls were still king.

Geiberger started on the 10th and his most productive stretch was the seven holes from the short 15th to the short third, inclusive, which he covered in birdie, birdie, birdie, birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie -- eight-under par. This remains a PGA Tour record, 35 years on. "The temperature was 102 with high humidity and I was miserable out there," he said. "I was in survival mode, not nervous-to-shoot-a-low-number mode."

Though a 59 has yet to be done on the European Tour, four players have matched Geiberger's distinction on the other side of the pond -- Chip Beck (Las Vegas Invitational 1991), David Duval (Bob Hope Classic 1999), Paul Goydos (John Deere Classic 2010) and Stuart Appleby (Greenbrier Classic 2010). All of which has had the effect of enhancing the original achievement.

"They simply bring more attention to what I did," said Geiberger with a smile. "Now they compare them with each other and if you look at the card I gave you, the course was almost 7,300 back in 1977. When I birdied the sixth, my 15th, the crowd started chanting '59, 59'. I was in the zone, invincible, believing I could never play bad golf again. Then I birdied the seventh and ninth and it was over. I had done something unique, which still causes people to say 'Hey Mr 59' when I'm in the local grocery store. It has meant more to the golfing public than my PGA, which is kinda odd if you think about it."

Meanwhile, setting milestones seems to run in the family. In 2004, Brent Geiberger won the Chrysler Classic of Greensboro, 28 years after his father captured the title, making them the first father/son winners of the same event on the PGA Tour.

Then there was the confusion which stemmed from his 59 being on the Colonial Course in Memphis. Geiberger's solution? He won the Colonial Tournament at the more famous Forth Worth venue of that name in 1979, beating January and Gene Littler by a stroke.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of an admirably productive career is that he managed to create an indelible niche for himself on the tournament scene, at a time when such celebrated rivals as Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Johnny Miller were strutting their stuff.

He certainly lends a fascinating dimension to the old notion that, from a playing perspective, competitive golf is all about the numbers on the scorecard. "Mr 59 is my name tag," Geiberger concluded with another smile. "And I've had a lot of fun with it." Indeed his business card says it all.

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