Mr. 59 - Al Geiberger makes PGA Tour history
MEMPHIS (June 10, 1977) – This was quite a day in the state of Tennessee. During the second round of the Danny Thomas Memphis Golf Classic, Al Geiberger became the first man in the history of the PGA Tour to shoot a round in the 50’s, carding a 13-under-par 59 at Colonial Country Club in Memphis. As spectacular an achievement as that was, it became a footnote in that day’s news cycle when, a few hours later came word that 360 miles to the East in
the small town of Petros, James Earl Ray, the convicted murderer of Martin Luther King Jr., and five other inmates escaped from Brushy Mountain State Prison. Ray, who was serving a 99-year sentence for killing the civil rights leader in Memphis in 1968 – not far from where Geiberger was making a different kind of history nine years later – used a pipe ladder made in the prison shop to scale a 12-foot wall. He was eventually tracked down by bloodhounds less than 10 miles from the prison in the surrounding mountainous region and was captured in the early morning hours of June 13, saying only “I don’t know” when he was asked where he had been and where was he going. Approximately 12 hours before Ray was apprehended, Geiberger held off a late charge from Gary Player to win the golf tournament, the 10th of the 11 he would win on the PGA Tour. Yet the actual finish was anticlimactic compared to the excitement of the 59. Interestingly, Player had been the first professional golfer to shoot a 59 in competition, but it came in November 1974 at the Brazil Open, an event not affiliated with any pro tour, so Geiberger forever gets the glory of being the first to shoot under 60. “Al Geiberger should have to take a test to prove he’s a member of the human race,” the always quippy Lee Trevino said after Geiberger signed his historic card.
“I felt a part of history, and the gallery felt it, too,” Geiberger said. “When I putted, I knew I couldn’t leave it short. I would never have another shot at a 59, and history. It was unbelievable. I played so good it was a letdown to make a par.” Geiberger played so flawlessly, he never changed his ball. He used the same one for all 18 holes, almost unheard of in a Tour event, not because players often lost balls, but because they always wanted a fresh one every few holes. Originally, he was going to give it to the tournament host, Danny Thomas, to auction off to help raise money for the tournament beneficiary, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis. But Golf House, home of the USGA which then served as golf’s Hall of Fame, asked for it, and that’s where it ended up. “When we got back to the hotel (my kids) raced up to the room to tell my wife I had a 59,” Geiberger said. “She said, ‘59 what?’” Geiberger began the second round seven shots behind leader Tom Storey before a 17-shot turnaround. While Geiberger followed his opening 72 with the 59, Storey went from 65 to 76. Thus, through 36 holes, Geiberger was now leading by six shots over Keith Fergus. He came back to Trevino’s human race in the third round with a 72 and saw his lead trimmed to three shots, but a final-round 70 gave him a 15-under total of 273 to edge Player and McGee. In an oddity, Geiberger became the first player to win a PGA Tour event (not counting major championships) without a single score in the 60s. For as long as the game had been played to this point – centuries in some parts of the world, more than 80 years in America – 59 had seemed like an unattainable mark. “It was a mental barrier, like the four-minute mile and other such athletic goals,” said Geiberger. “Now, all the other tour players will look at the figure 59 and say, ‘Well, if Geiberger can do it, so can I.’” Yet no one did it again on the Tour until Chip Beck in 1991 at the Las Vegas Invitational. And another seven years went by before finally, shooting 59 became more commonplace. In 1998, both Notah Begay Jr. and Doug Dunakey did it on the Nike Tour, David Duval shot 59 at the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, and Annika Sorenstam became the first female to do it in 2001 at the LPGA’s Standard Register PING tournament. Ryo Ishikawa shaved a stroke off with a 58 in a Japan Golf Tour event in 2010, Stephan Jager matched that in a 2016 Web.com Tour event, and then Jim Furyk made history by shooting the first PGA Tour 58 in 2016 at the Travelers Championship. To date, scores of 59 or less have been fashioned 26 times in official tournaments on major tours, and another 17 have come in unofficial events or qualifying rounds including the all-time record of 57 by Ireland’s David Carey at the 2019 Cervino Open on the Alps Tour, a developmental circuit in Europe. Still, Geiberger, the man who became known as Mr. 59, was the first. “Years down the road,” he said after winning in Memphis, “people will associate the score with my name, just as they say such things about other players are the former this or the former that.”