Tape delayed: Visual memories surface for 'Mr. 59'

Al Geiberger walks across the 18th green at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, July 25, 1966. Geiberger is about to toss his hat after he sank his last putt and won the PGA champion ship by a four-stroke margin.

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Of the five PGA Tour pros who have broken 60, only one answers to “Mr. 59.” Al Geiberger owns the copyright. The last four digits of his phone number? 5959. His score has stirred the fascination of golfers ever since. Not a day goes by that Geiberger doesn’t relive June 10, 1977, when during the second round of the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic he became the first player to break 60 in a Tour-sanctioned event. There was just one blemish to his day of perfection. He’d never seen a video replay of it.

“All these years,” Geiberger said, “I’ve never seen myself make the final putt to shoot 59.”

That is, until recently. This is the story of Geiberger’s tape-delayed finish, 36 years in the making. Sadly, the video footage and his distinctive business card, which opens to reveal a replica of the 59 scorecard, is all that remains. Geiberger sold his memorabilia, including the set of clubs he used to make history, at auction last month. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

In the pre-Golf Channel days, no one bothered to broadcast the early rounds of Tour events. In fact, none of the networks televised the 1977 Danny Thomas Memphis Classic. The local NBC affiliate shot the only video of Geiberger’s round. Greg Johans, a 22-year-old WMC-TV sports anchor, was set to leave the course when he stopped dead in his tracks in the clubhouse. He looked up at a manually-operated scoreboard bleeding a blur of red figures by Geiberger’s name and went bug-eyed. “I thought it had to be some kind of joke,” Johans said.

Realizing history was in the making, Johans and his cameraman hustled to catch Geiberger, and filmed his last three holes. His 59 led the local newscast. How come Mr. 59 missed seeing his heroics?

“I was taking a shower,” Geiberger said, “and I’ve been kicking myself ever since.”

A fire at the TV station destroyed the file video. All the tasty details lived on, however, preserved in an oral history that Geiberger can recite in his sleep.

He’ll tell you about the small swing change that he made after giving his son, Rob, a lesson and explaining that he needed to lower his hands at address.

“I realized I was doing the same thing,” Geiberger said. “That was the swing key I took to Memphis. When I hit it well in the pro-am and the first round, I had a good feeling about how I was striking the ball.”

Still, Geiberger had missed his previous two cuts, and after opening with 72 at Colonial Country Club, he was just thinking about cashing a check on the weekend – as he put it, “I was thinking how am I going to survive 18 holes in this heat. It was so miserably hot.”

Geiberger will tell you why his putter was on fire. At his previous start, in Atlanta, Geiberger had missed a short putt on the final hole and failed to make the cut by one stroke. He headed straight to the putting green where his anger cooked some more. But during that session, his caddie, Lee Lynch, noticed his feet aimed right of the target and that Geiberger was taking the putter back inside his target line on the backswing. So he opened his stance. A week off at home had a cleansing effect, and he practiced rolling putts on the rug in his office. His confidence in his stroke improved. Buoyed by two swing keys, Geiberger teed off at 12:32 p.m. with little anticipation of the history he was about to make.

“I’ve heard Johnny Miller call it a ‘WOOD key,’ as in ‘Worked Only One Day.’ We’ve all had those,” Geiberger said. “Well, my putting fix worked all week.”

He took just 23 putts in his record round. Paired with Dave Stockton and Jerry McGee, Geiberger hit every fairway and every green with monotonous repetition on his way to making 11 birdies and an eagle. Starting on the 10th hole, he’ll tell you how he began torching Colonial with a long-range bomb.

“I made a 45-footer,” he said. “The pin was in the front, and I hit it past the hole. Stockton swears it was 60 feet.”

Geiberger will recount hearing a fire engine speed by and backing off a putt at the 13th hole.

“They had put some straw on the ground in the parking lot, and it was so hot that day that a catalytic converter caught fire and burned seven or eight cars,” he said. “The black smoke was floating straight up. It was one way to tell there was no wind.”

Geiberger was 2 under through five holes. Then he ate some peanut butter crackers. Before becoming Mr. 59, Geiberger was known as “Skippy,” for his penchant to eat peanut butter sandwiches during a round to counter his low blood sugar. It’s a story that had been well documented during his victory at the 1966 PGA Championship. One night earlier, Geiberger had attended a cocktail party and met Bob Schreiber, who claimed to make a mean peanut butter cracker. Schreiber lived by the 14th green at Colonial Country Club.

“I said to him, ‘Do you promise?’ I’d had people say they’re going to bring me a peanut butter sandwich before and then I’m left starving,” said Geiberger, who ate breakfast but skipped lunch.

There was Schreiber with a dinner plate filled with crackers. A backup on the 15th tee allowed the lanky Geiberger enough time to eat four or five of them. He reeled off birdies on the next four holes to tour his first nine in 6 under.

“I remember looking up at the scoreboard and thinking, ‘Wow, I haven’t shot 30 in a long time,’ ” Geiberger said.

At the 582-yard first hole, Geiberger pumped a drive. Normally, the par 5 played as a three-shotter to avoid a cross bunker, but Geiberger’s drive had traveled so far that he poked 3-wood to within 30 yards of the green.

“That was the only time I ever went for the green in two,” he said.

For his next trick, Geiberger chipped in for eagle. Then he rolled in birdie putts from 18 feet and 20 feet at the next two holes and apologized to Stockton, one of the game’s renowned putters, who on this day couldn’t hook a fish in a barrel. He shot 75. Geiberger, on the other hand, was 8 under for his last seven holes.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what’s happening.”

Pars at Nos. 4 and 5 “felt like bogeys,” he said, but Geiberger bounced back with a birdie after giving himself a pep talk on the uphill climb to the sixth tee.

“I said, ‘Be more aggressive.’ That’s what my college coach Stan Wood (at USC) used to tell me,” Geiberger said. “I felt like I couldn’t miss.”

Geiberger hit 3-wood off the tee, planted a wedge 13 feet away and made the putt to reach 11 under for the day. He needed two birdies on the final three holes to set the record.

“I didn’t know how many under par I was until the gallery began yelling ‘59,’ ” Geiberger said. “They had figured it out.”

That’s when Johans and his cameraman arrived on the scene. The 59 talk began with one fan and quickly turned into a chorus of fans chanting “59,” right up until the time Geiberger was waggling on the next tee, Johans said. “I’m walking inside the ropes next to him and it was giving me goose bumps,” Johans said. “This had to be making him more nervous.”

The 564-yard, par-5 seventh hole at Colonial traces back to the clubhouse. Geiberger ripped a driver and 3-wood, and chipped to within 10 feet. As Geiberger marched to the green, he noticed Howard Twitty and several other Tour pros had come out to witness history.

“I did something I’d never done before,” Geiberger said.

Before his 9-foot birdie putt disappeared into the cup, he turned to the crowd and raised his arms in celebration. “I knew it was in,” he said.

One birdie to go. The 479-yard, par-4 eighth hole is the toughest on the course. Geiberger rifled a 5-iron 20 feet short of the hole, but his birdie effort veered left, which meant he would need a birdie at the last to break 60.

On seven occasions, a PGA Tour pro had shot 60, but not since Sam Snead at the 1957 Dallas Open. In his book, “Tempo,” Geiberger described how he felt as he walked to the final tee. “I floated over, my feet never touching the ground.” McGee and Stockton were by his side. The three sank into a deep silence. Fortunately a few spectators helped ease the moment.

“There were some girls with short shorts on,” Geiberger said, “and we were giggling about them.”

By the time Geiberger had reached the 403-yard dogleg ninth hole, word had spread of Geiberger’s potential feat. Johans and his cameraman struggled to move through the crowd. They caught a break when Geiberger and his caddie disagreed on what club to hit on the approach shot. Geiberger had stepped off his distance to the back hole location and got 121 yards; his caddie had 127. The camera rolled just as Geiberger opted to hit an “easy 9” and waggled over his ball. Geiberger stuck his approach 9 feet left of the hole. As he stared over an uphill left-to-right breaker, he motioned for McGee to finish out first.

“I was ready to putt,” Geiberger said. “I was walking around in circles. When you’re hot like that, you walk up and you just know the line.”

McGee offered to wait. So Geiberger settled in, aimed for the left edge, and watched the putt take the break and drop into the center of the cup.

For 36 years, he has recounted the story. He’ll tell you that he used one golf ball for all 18 holes – a Hogan No. 1 – and how it has gone missing from the World Golf Hall of Fame, along with the original scorecard, possibly during the time when the museum relocated in the mid-1990s from Pinehurst, N.C., to St. Augustine, Fla.

But something else recently resurfaced. A year ago, Johans’ wife pestered him to clean the attic of their Wormsleyburg, Pa., home. At the bottom of a box he uncovered a three-quarter-inch tape labeled “Geiberger” in black marker.

“My heart jumped,” Johans said.

He had forgotten that he had dubbed the tape. Could the footage be salvaged? Johans knew that under the best of circumstances such a tape should last 8-10 years.

“I’m thinking 35 years in extreme hot and cold in an attic, there’s no way the emulsion on this tape could have survived,” he said.

Still, he hired a team of professionals to convert the tape to a digital format. The experts figured they had one shot to copy it, and they were right. When Johans pressed “eject,” out spit the tape, damaged beyond repair, but not before history was preserved to DVD.

Johans had made a career change 10 years ago and now works for Pay Pros, a credit card processing company, but he still knew a good story when one fell into his lap. He contacted Golf Channel, and after a few false starts, a plan was hatched. On Feb. 18, Geiberger sat for an interview in the PGA West clubhouse in La Quinta, Calif., for a documentary on golf’s magical number 59. Out popped Johans, inquiring whether Geiberger had ever seen footage of his magical round.

“I thought, ‘Why is this new manager at the club I don’t even know ruining our shoot?’ ” Geiberger said.

He politely answered, “No.”

Johans took a swallow, allowing the drama to build, and simply said, “Well, I’ve got it.”

Geiberger’s initial reaction: “I thought I was being punked.”

Not exactly, but the documentary was a set up to capture Geiberger’s raw emotion of this long-awaited moment for a segment on Golf Chanel’s “In Play with Jimmy Roberts.” (The episode premiered in April. The Tour returns to Memphis this week for its annual stop, which since 1989 has been at TPC Southwind.)

Johans led Geiberger to a big-screen TV. The cameras kept rolling. Three of Geiberger’s six children – Brent, Bryan and Allen Jr. – huddled around and watched the 1-minute, 40-second segment with their father for the first time. Geiberger marveled at his swing. “It looked like Nicklaus,” he said. “We moved our legs more and went up on our left toes. I just couldn’t believe how much shoulder and hip turn I could make back then.”

There he was turning his back on the hole as his birdie putt at the seventh split the hole.

“The proof shows I turned 2 feet from the hole, but it felt like 2 feet from leaving my putter,” Geiberger said.

Geiberger achieved one of the most remarkable feats – and a great trivia question, at that – shooting 15 under in a 72-hole tournament without a round in the 60s.

Whenever Geiberger’s 59 is discussed to determine its proper place in the pantheon of great rounds, it’s often knocked for being played with preferred lies in the fairway. The combination of a rough winter and a drought left patches of bare grass. The rules officials white-lined the fairways because it was difficult to discern any difference between short grass and rough, a fellow competitor that week said.

But if there were any lingering doubt that Geiberger took advantage of a push-over course, former PGA champion Shaun Micheel, who grew up overlooking the fourth green at Colonial Country Club, dispels that notion: “I couldn’t shoot 59 from the red tees there,” he said.

What some fail to appreciate is Geiberger shot 59 on bumpy Bermuda greens with a balata ball, persimmon woods and less-forgiving irons on the longest course on Tour. He shot six strokes better than the next-best score that day, a 65 by Raymond Floyd. Geiberger described the wonder of it all more simply.

“A certain feeling of invincibility came over me during that round,” he said, “and I felt like I’d never screw up again.”

For the rest of his career, Geiberger chased that ephemeral feeling. The eddying of emotion and momentum in golf is as elusive and indefinable as it is directly perceptible, and just two weeks later Geiberger posted an 81 at the Western Open. A month later he shot a humbling 85 in Canada. For an easy laugh, he likes to remind people that he shot in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s in the same month.

Geiberger won the last of his 10 Champions Tour titles in 1996. He still plays golf regularly, serving as golf ambassador at PGA West, and played a round with Johans later the day they met. What else does he do now? “Odds and ends,” Geiberger said. “I teach here and there.”

That includes forming the Geiberger Golf Academy with sons John, Bryan and Allen Jr.

“We think we’re better than the Stocktons. We just haven’t promoted ourselves,” Geiberger said. “We’re not even using Brent, my son, who had success on the Tour. He made so much money he is on Easy Street.”

Geiberger is not. He recently auctioned the set of clubs he used to shoot 59 for $12,457, and Ping’s John Solheim purchased the Ping Pal putter from Geiberger’s sizzling round for $8,305. The bucket hat that Geiberger wore fetched $1,811. All told, Geiberger’s memorabilia sales tallied nearly $130,000.

“I’ll probably regret selling the clubs,” Geiberger said. “One of my boys wasn’t too happy about it. He said, ‘Dad, you didn’t sell those, did you?’ ” Geiberger went on. ”I hope they went to the right people.”

The clubs and bag were purchased by The Brandenburg Historical Museum at Cinnabar Hills Golf Club in San Jose, Calif. The museum already had on display the clubs that Chip Beck used when he shot the second 59 on the PGA Tour, in the third round of the 1991 Las Vegas Invitational.

Geiberger said he continued to use the set – a Spalding Al Geiberger driver, TopFlite 4-wood, TopFlite Legacy 2- and 3-irons, Spalding Al Geiberger 4-9 irons, a TopFlite and Con-Sole wedge and Wilson sand wedge – for another year, before retiring them to the garage and later to collecting dust in a storage unit.

“Four or five years ago, I took them out one day and let a bunch of local pros hit them,” Geiberger said. “They really enjoyed that.”

Why sell his memorabilia with Green Jacket Auctions now? Well one reason may be that Geiberger’s name has surfaced on California’s Franchise Tax Board list of the top 500 delinquent taxpayers. He reportedly owes $219,060. But Geiberger downplayed his tax woes.

“I needed some money because my retirement has run out from the Tour,” he said.

Geiberger’s PGA Tour career was winding down just as the Tour’s lucrative pension plan was forming, in 1982.

“I kind of fell into a crack there, you might say, where I had a chance to build up asome (retirement income) on the Champions Tour, but I didn’t have a chance to build up enough; let’s put it that way,” he said.

A PGA Tour spokesperson confirmed that Geiberger’s 10-year Champions Tour annuity ended when he turned 75, and he’ll have to make do without his Tour pension, which vanishes later this year.

“That’s always been my joke, that I get $128 a month,” Geiberger said. “Now I get a notice that that runs out, too.”

The memories of his 59, however, live on. And now with video proof, at last his record round is perfect in every way.

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