‘Mr. 59’ among Monday sights at Augusta

Ian Poulter, Justin Rose and Graeme McDowell walk down a fairway with their caddies during a practice round prior to the 2011 Masters.

Ian Poulter, Justin Rose and Graeme McDowell walk down a fairway with their caddies during a practice round prior to the 2011 Masters.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – It is on days like this – a pulsating sun pouring forth radiant warmth, gentle breezes offering great comfort, flowers blooming at every turn of the head – when you realize a good walk is not only never spoiled at Augusta National but is a prerequisite to capture the true flavor of the Masters.

That it begins beneath the iconic oak tree behind the clubhouse is a given, and it was there one saw a golf bag that offered intrigue. “Mr. 59” is what was emblazoned upon the side of the bag, and with apologies to David Duval, Chip Beck, Paul Goydos and Stuart Appleby, it could mean only one man.

Al Geiberger was in attendance.

This June will commemorate the 34th anniversary of the unforgettable round of golf played by Geiberger, who became the first to shoot 59 in a PGA Tour tournament. He went on to win that Danny Thomas Memphis Classic, but what gets overlooked often is the fact the historic round came in the twilight of Geiberger’s PGA Tour career.

He would win just once more on Tour, and in 1980, at the age of 42, Geiberger played in his 17th and final Masters. There would be visits, but no competition, for each of the next four Aprils. Then he stopped coming . . . until this year. Now 73, Geiberger is back at Augusta National, just one of the many authors of golf history who are patrolling the sport’s greenest and grandest stage.

“They’ve built so much; there’s just so many changes,” Geiberger said while standing next to a young man who is a big reason “Mr. 59” has returned. Brian Geiberger, 34, was born months before his father fired that historic round of golf in Memphis, and he was too young to ever attend the Masters.

But he is here this year, and not only that, but he’s wearing the famed white jumpsuit, signifying that he’s a caddie. OK, so it will be just for the Par 3 Contest Wednesday, but Brian Geiberger is thrilled to have even a small part in golf’s most popular show.

After explaining that a family friend from Palm Desert in California organizes hospitality trips to Augusta and finally talked his dad into coming, Brian Geiberger scanned the large crowd beneath the oak tree and looked for his father. Finally, he spotted him and caught his father’s attention by yelling out, “Hey, Big Al.”

It brought a smile to Al Geiberger’s face, and what made it even wider and more brilliant were thoughts of getting out onto a course he hadn’t seen in 27 Aprils.

“Still beautiful, just longer,” he said.

That is a sentiment that resonates from one corner of Augusta National to the other on these majestic spring days, when smiles are the norm. Even on those shots that land in the water, as happened to Rickie Fowler and Peter Uihlein.

Then again, it was by design because the one-time teammates at Oklahoma State are making their Masters debuts and thus were taking on for the first time a charming tradition: trying to skip a ball across the pond at the par-3 16th and onto the green.

Fowler, last year’s PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, failed miserably, and Uihlein, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, had an equally feeble attempt.

That brought down a shower of boos from patrons jammed around the green, and both Fowler and Uihlein urged for even more noise. When first Uihlein, then Fowler, made the ball skip across the water and reach land, the boos were changed to cheers and the youngsters had priceless smiles.

“I just didn’t realize how hard you have to hit it,” Uihlein said. “You have to smoke it.”

On other occasions this spring, Masters entrants had taken advantage of the invitation to play practice rounds, and what they experienced on those days was a remarkable solitude. But on this first day of the 2011 Masters, enormous crowds and a massive surge of electricity enveloped the place and carried you from hole to hole.

So dynamic is the scene that caddie Louis Sira got caught up in it and became engrossed in conversation with a large crowd following Jhonattan Vegas. Standing over his ball in the first fairway, Vegas surveyed the shot, but needed a club, so he motioned for Sira to forgo the socializing and get on with the work at hand.

Of course, there was nowhere to go, because glorious as Augusta National days might be, they are painfully slow if you are a player. So Vegas and his practice-round companion, 2009 Masters champ Angel Cabrera, stood in the fairway as the trio ahead plodded along.

Finally, Jerry Kelly looked up, realized that two were on deck, and he halted his pitch shots from the front of the green at five or six or perhaps even seven. Steve Stricker and Gregory Havret did similarly, and play moved on – even if it was agonizingly slow.

That doesn’t always sit well with a quick-paced chap such as Dustin Johnson, yet even he will slow down when Augusta National throws a bit of mystery at him. For instance, the approach shot into the par-4 ninth that played dead downwind. Either Johnson did not account for that or misjudged it terribly, because next thing you know, his ball was long and left of the back hole location, so much so that it nearly ended up on the first tee.

Pick it up and move on? It seemed a logical thought, given that it was a practice round, but the true brilliance of Augusta National is that it throws at you a multitude of different angles and affords you the chance to play the same shot perhaps four or five different ways. So what the heck: Johnson and caddie Bobby Brown moved the patrons, opened up some space, and took on the challenge of a near-impossible shot . . . and when it failed miserably, guess what? Johnson smiled.

It was, after all, a perfect day at the perfect golf theater.

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