For decades, 59 was the magic number on Tour. That may be about to change

For decades, 59 was the magic number on Tour. That may be about to change

The newest members of Club 59: Paul Goydos and Stuart Appleby
Kohjiro Kinno/SI

It is a feat so rare that it can forever define how a player communicates with the outside world. The first man to do it on the PGA Tour, Al Geiberger, has a phone number ending in 5959. The second player to shoot golf’s magic number carries an e-mail prefix of ­ChipBeck59. The fifth and most recent fellow to shoot a 59 on Tour, Stuart Appleby, is researching vanity license plates that will include the score that now defines him. “It is something that follows you forever,” says Geiberger, still spry at age 73. “How many U.S. presidents have there been? [Forty-four.] How many players have won a Masters? [Forty-four.]” Point taken.

The 59 club may be golf’s most exclusive, but in 2010 the number came under siege as never before. Since Geiberger’s Bannister­esque breakthrough in 1977, a 59 had been shot about once a decade: Chip Beck in ’91, David Duval in ’99, Paul Goydos in July 2010. But it was only 24 days after Goydos’s 59 that Appleby shot his, ending a torrid stretch in which three other Tour players fired 60s and Ryo Ishikawa shot a 58 on the Japanese PGA Tour. For more than 30 years the 59 has been golf’s ultimate symbol of mastery, even as the game’s equipment, playing fields and athletes have evolved dramatically. Last year’s barrage of crazy-low scores raises the question: Is a 59 still a 59?

Geiberger’s historic achievement came during the second round of the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic. It was played under lift, clean and place, not because of rain but because of Colonial Country Club’s spotty fairways. “What grass there was was new and tight, and it was hard to find a place to get a really good lie,” Geiberger wrote in his book Tempo. He was 39 and nearing the end of a productive Tour career that would see him win 11 times, including the 1966 PGA Championship. He went to Memphis having missed the cut in his previous two tournaments, one by a lone stroke after he blew a three-footer on the 36th hole. He was so discouraged that he didn’t touch a club during the week before Memphis. But once he showed up, his caddie, Lee Lynch, gave him a putting tip, and Geiberger felt a little surge of confidence during the first round.

He began the second round on the back nine. Geiberger birdied two of his first four holes, and then on number 14 he was standing over an eight-footer for birdie when a fire truck roared by. He backed off but then missed the putt, and smoke was pouring out of his ears as he idled on the tee of the 15th hole, a 200-yard par-3. Geiberger was known as Skippy for the peanut-butter sandwiches he was always eating on the course; on the 15th tee a friend handed him five peanut-butter crackers, and thus fortified, he laced a three-iron to 15 feet and made the putt. Birdies at the next three holes followed, and Geiberger made the turn in 30. On number 1, a 582-yard par-5, he holed a 30-yard pitch for an eagle. Geiberger was aware that the Tour record for most under-par holes in a row was eight and matching that feat was his consuming thought as he rolled in an 18-footer on the 2nd and a 20-footer on the 3rd. The streak ended on the next hole, a par-4, where Geiberger missed a 13-footer. He suddenly felt drained—by the June heat and the intensity with which he had been pursuing the record. Geiberger parred number 5 and remained at 10 under par with four to play. He needed three more birdies to shoot 59, but that was not yet on his mind. To that point there had been seven rounds of 60 in Tour history but none since Sam Snead’s in 1957. No, Geiberger was simply hoping to match his career low of 61, shot in a casual round at La Cumbre Country Club, his home course in Santa Barbara, Calif.

On Colonial’s 6th hole Geiberger split the fairway with a three-wood, knocked a pitching wedge to 13 feet and made the putt. (For the day he hit every fairway and green.) His gallery had been steadily growing throughout the round, and when the birdie putt disappeared, a chant suddenly rang out: “Fif-ty nine! Fif-ty nine! Fif-ty nine!” Says Geiberger, “On the 6th tee the crowd was still going crazy, and I thought, What the hell have I gotten myself into? Holy criminy, what do I do now? I honestly thought about making a bogey to release the tension.” Instead he thought of his former coach at USC, Stan Wood. “Mentally, how do you let yourself go lower? I can’t explain it,” Geiberger says. “I’m not sure I even understand it. Sometimes you have to play tricks on yourself. So I decided I’d play the last three holes for Coach Wood. He had always told me I needed to be more aggressive on the course. So I decided that’s how I’d play the last three holes. If I screwed up, it would be his fault, not mine.”

On the par-5 7th hole Geiberger produced three textbook shots and nailed a nine-footer for birdie. Twelve under par. On the long par-4 8th hole, his five-iron came up 20 feet short and he missed the putt. So it all came down to number 9, a 403-yard par-4, dogleg left. Geiberger took a fearless line off the tee and flew the bunker on the inside of the dogleg. (Minus the adrenaline, he landed in the trap in each of the next two rounds.) From 122 yards he smoothed a three-quarter nine-iron eight feet left of the hole. The event was not televised, but a local TV crew filmed Geiberger’s final hole. He says the tape was destroyed in a fire, and he has never seen footage of himself draining the putt. But it lives in his mind’s eye: “Uphill, a little left to right. It dove right in the center. What a great feeling!” Geiberger won without shooting a round in the 60s (72-59-72-70).

The set of mostly Spalding clubs Geiberger used are as outdated as black-and-white TV. His highest lofted wedge was 56 degrees. His steel driver shaft was 431/2 inches long—now they’re two to three inches longer—with a little wooden head. “I don’t even know the loft,” he says. “We never talked about that stuff. If I had to guess, I’d say nine degrees.” During his 59 Geiberger used the same Ben Hogan brand balata ball for all 18 holes. “Boy, did that thing get up in the air and spin,” he says, not entirely fondly.

Fourteen years later Beck was using the same model of ball. The vagaries of the manufacturing process were such that he carried a metal ring and would test the roundness of every ball. A surprisingly high number didn’t pass muster. Beck’s Ping driver had a metal head and a steel shaft one quarter of an inch longer than Geiberger’s. Beck was carrying an old-school one-iron but also a 60-degree lob wedge, a game changer that had been popularized in the 1980s. In Beck’s mind the biggest technological advance he benefited from was the frequency-matched shafts in his Hogan Apex irons. “Early in my career I was using a regular women’s shaft and didn’t even know it,” says Beck, who reached the Tour in 1979, the year of Geiberger’s final victory.

By 1990 Beck had become one of the top Americans, winning three times and taking the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average on Tour in ’88. Earnest and relentlessly positive, he emerged as an unlikely team leader during the combative 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, where he scored a crucial singles victory over Ian Woosnam, who at the time was No. 1 in the World Ranking. A week and a half later Beck turned up for the Las Vegas Invitational, which was contested on three courses. On the 1st hole he fatted a seven-iron to the front of the green and then canned the ensuing 60-footer. “Kiawah was such a grueling week, with all that pressure and that brutal course,” says Beck, 54. “I was pretty beat up when I got to Las Vegas. Making that putt put me in such a good frame of mind, and that lasted the whole week.”

For his third round Beck journeyed to Sunrise Golf Club, which had opened a mere 10 months earlier. Its generous fairways were lined by saplings and a five o’clock shadow of rough. At 6,914 yards Sunrise was more than three football fields shorter than the layout Geiberger had torched. “All week long there had been talk that someone might shoot a 59 there,” Beck recalls. He got a jump on it with an opening 29, having begun the round on the 10th tee. For Beck the key moment was not one of the seven birdies but the 20-foot par putt he rattled in on 16.

At the turn an ESPN camera crew picked up Beck. A warm breeze blew in, and the greens began to get dry and crusty. “The putting surfaces were so much more challenging back then,” says Beck. “It was the era of hand mowers and metal spikes. On the back nine the ball was bouncing on every putt.”

Still, he holed three birdie putts on the first six holes of his second nine. Beck needed to birdie the final three holes, and like Geiberger before him, he let his mind wander. “I started thinking about the money,” he says. At the start of the ’91 season a $1 million bonus was being offered to any golfer who shot a 59. “Back then that was a lot of money,” Beck says with a laugh. Half of the dough had to be earmarked for charity, and that was what Beck really lusted for because he and his wife, Karen, had recently started a charitable foundation. The feeling of playing for something larger quieted Beck’s nerves.

He reached the par-5 7th with a 227-yard two-iron and two-putted for birdie. Then he got a break on the par-3 8th when his leaky tee ball, with a five-iron, bounced off a greenside mound to within eight feet. Beck shook in the putt. After a perfect drive on the 9th hole Beck had 157 yards left and only one swing thought: Hole it! Seriously. “I didn’t want to have a putt that meant so much,” he says. His eight-iron was brilliant but not quite perfect, leaving a 31/2-footer. Sure enough, two spike marks were in his line. “If I hit my putt where I wanted to, it looked as if my ball would get pushed slightly to the right of one of the spike marks and catch the right side of the hole.” That is precisely what happened. “Oh, baby!” hollered Beck, who just like that was $1 million to the good.

The comparisons to Geiberger’s 59 were immediate and generally unflattering, given that the first had been shot on one of the Tour’s toughest tracks. Beck was never bothered. “A 59 is a 59 is a 59,” he says. “But it’s fun for fans to compare them. And if you ask me, I think David’s is the best.”

Duval had won eight times in the preceding 15 months when he arrived at the 1999 Bob Hope Classic, but he still lacked a signature victory. This was early-period Duval, when he was a taciturn enigma hiding behind wraparound sunglasses. The final round of that Hope was an unlikely Sunday for a defining performance—Duval was seven strokes off the lead as he teed it up on the 6,950-yard Palmer Private course at PGA West, a quirky layout with five par-5s and five par-3s. While Geiberger and Beck both holed a number of mid-range putts, Duval’s 59 was a monument to ballstriking. He birdied the first three holes, knocking it stiff each time. In the middle of his round Duval became even more precise, hitting a pitching wedge to four feet on the 11th hole and a six-iron to two feet on the 12th. That brought him to eight under par, and Duval never took his foot off the gas. On the par-3 15th hole he stuck his eight-iron a foot from the hole. “It was an easy 59,” Jeff Maggert, one of Duval’s playing partners, would later say. “I’ve never seen anyone hit the ball that close for an entire round. It was sort of like a no-hitter. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Finally, [on 15] after he stiffed it for the fourth straight time on a par-3, I said, ‘I didn’t realize we were playing par-2s today.’ “

On the par-4 16th Duval stuffed a sand wedge to six inches. “It helped me that this happened when I was trying to win,” he says. “I didn’t think about my score until I got to 11 under, on the 16th hole. I simply kept trying to make more birdies.”

These first fleeting thoughts of a 59 temporarily sidetracked Duval, as he produced a so-so nine-iron on the par-3 17th and then missed the 20-footer. So to attain golf’s magic number, he needed an eagle on 18, a watery par-5. Duval began by smashing a 320-yard tee ball, using his 6.5-degree Titleist 975D driver with a 44-inch shaft. From 226 yards he flushed a five-iron that cozied to within six feet of the hole. If he made the putt, Duval would be in a great position to win the tournament, but he admitted, “I was more excited about the score than having the chance to win. The 59 was first and foremost in my mind.” He made the putt and then loosed a series of uppercuts, the most passionate, spontaneous display of emotion in a career that includes a win at the 2001 British Open. None of the players behind him could match Duval’s torrid pace, and his 59 stood up for a rousing comeback victory, which explains Beck’s (and others’) affection for the round.

Doing it on Sunday certainly earns Duval bonus points, but he did enjoy certain advantages over Geiberger and Beck, notably the absence of spiked-up greens and scrubby fairways. Duval did not have to deal with oppressive Memphis heat or the weight of a much ballyhooed $1 million bonus. His tools were significantly better too. He was playing a Titleist Professional 90 wound ball, which was significantly longer than the balatas used by Geiberger and Beck. At 260 cubic centimeters Duval’s titanium-faced driver was larger and much hotter than his predecessors’. This was the dawn of the launch-monitor era, and Duval was able to scientifically identify the perfect lightweight graphite shaft to max out his driver’s efficiency. Yet 11 months shy of the turn of the century, golf’s equipment possibilities were not yet fully realized. A year and a half after Duval’s 59, solid-core balls would begin to spread on Tour, a revolution that was comparable in importance to the transition from hickory shafts to steel.

Driver heads would balloon to their current maxed-out size of 460 cc. The power game that had first been glimpsed with the ascendency of Duval and Tiger Woods would sweep the sport. The game was changing, but how much so wouldn’t be obvious until the end of the aughts.

On May 2, 2010, Ryo Ishikawa, then 18, shot a final-round 58 to win the Crowns tournament in Japan. (He missed a 15-footer on the final green for a 57.) It was a stunning achievement but instantly dismissed by some because Nagoya Golf Club was a mere 6,545 yards and played to a par of 70.

Two months later Paul Goydos turned up for the John Deere Classic, a few weeks removed from his 46th birthday. He was in his 18th season on Tour, having earned only two victories but a lot of admirers with his glib sensibilities and throwback, ball-control game. Goydos turned pro two years before Beck’s 59, and his configuration of TaylorMade clubs was a testament to how much the game had changed: Whereas Beck carried a one-iron, Goydos had nothing lower than a four. He carried (and still does) two hybrids, two wedges and a driver with a 44 1/2-inch shaft. For his 59 he used a Titleist Pro V1, the gold standard of solid-core balls, which was introduced in October 2000.

Goydos had little reason to feel optimistic about his chances at the Deere—he had missed the cut in six of his 13 previous starts. The 7,257-yard, par-71 TPC Deere Run had been softened by rain, leading to lift, clean and place. Goydos caught another break; he was sent off in the second group of the day, on flawless greens. He birdied two of the first four holes and then made a key par at the 5th. Goydos is old enough to have learned the game before square grooves were popularized. Last year he was happy to go back to the less aggressive grooves because “the flyer helps you sometimes.” On the 5th hole he hit a “really dumb” drive into the right rough. He had 160 yards to the flag. “With square grooves I couldn’t have gotten a seven-iron to the green. With the V-grooves I caught a flyer and knocked it on.” He salvaged a par, then birdied the next two holes with 40 feet of putts, making the turn in four-under 31.

And then all heaven broke loose: eight birdies on the back nine, including the final three holes. Goydos’s shotmaking included a “chippy” 102-yard nine-iron on 10 and an adrenaline-fueled 173-yard seven-iron on the 18th to seven feet. “I played good and shot 59,” Goydos said, “but I could have played good and shot 65. There’s something going on that’s maybe a little unexplainable.” Actually, it was quantifiable: For the day he made 187 1/2 feet of putts. (Duval needed barely a third of that.) Goydos’s 13 holed putts of longer than five feet tied the most for any player in any round since the arrival of ShotLink in 2003.

“It always comes down to the putting, doesn’t it?” says Geiberger, momentarily overlooking Duval’s 59.

Goydos said he was speechless to have shot such an iconic number, but the euphoria was diminished somewhat when he showed up for his second round to find himself four strokes out of the lead. That’s because a few hours after Goydos’s 59, Steve Stricker had fired a 60 and just kept going.

On July 8, 2010, Goydos and Stricker navigated a legit PGA Tour course in a combined 119 strokes; then the levee broke.

Sixteen days later Carl Pettersson shot a 60 at the Canadian Open that included a bogey on the 2nd hole and a 30-footer on the last that grazed the cup. Six days after that, at the Irish Open, Ross Fisher needed two birdies on his final four holes to become the first player to shoot 59 on the European tour, but he parred in. The next day two more players took a run at 59 at the PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic, played in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., on the 7,020-yard, par-70 Old White course. D.A. Points was 10 under par standing on the tee of the par-5 17th hole, but he made a soul-crushing bogey and settled for 61. J.B. Holmes shot a 60 that included a bogey on the 3rd hole, a lipped-out three-footer for birdie on 11 and a missed 10-footer for eagle on 17. Afterward he said, “Oh, yeah, there’s definitely a 59 out there.”

The following day Stuart Appleby made Holmes a prophet. The round fell into the familiar pattern: a hot start (28 on the par-34 front nine), a crucial mid-round burst (eagle at 12), a little lull as he contemplated the magnitude of the opportunity (pars on 13 through 15) and then a heroic finishing flourish (birdies on 16, 17 and 18). Like Duval, Appleby’s 59 resulted in a one-stroke victory. He was asked if it was any less special as the first 59 to come on a par-70. “Look, I’ll debate it with you,” he said. “It is a number. I shot that number. Who says par is supposed to be 72?”

For Appleby the key blow was his eagle on the 568-yard 12th, which he reached with a four-iron despite clipping a tree with his drive. (Duval laid up on four of his five par-5s.) Appleby is more of a power player than Geiberger or Beck or Goydos, but he’s hardly an animal off the tee. Still, Appleby rendered Old White defenseless. On the 440-yard 2nd hole he hit a nine-iron to 11 feet. On the 445-yard 16th he hit a “punchy” eight-iron to 15 feet. “Benign” was the word he used to describe the course.

The lengthening of classic tracks for major championships gets a lot of attention, but other Tour venues have not grown fast enough to keep up with advances in equipment, agronomy and fitness. Appleby, Duval and Beck shot 59s on courses that were shorter than Geiberger’s, while Goydos’s was basically the identical yardage. “In my day a 450-yard par-4 was a monster,” says Beck. “It was something to be feared. Now that hole is driver-wedge.” Appleby doesn’t disagree. “When I showed up on Tour [in ’96], there was long and very long, and I was long. Now there’s long, very long and oh-my-God.”

In addition to a shrinking playing field, the modern pro also has a lot more help to fine-tune his performance. On his payroll Appleby has a swing coach, a sports psychologist, a personal trainer and an osteopath. How big was Geiberger’s entourage? “Me, myself and I,” he says with a laugh. “Now it’s a team sport.”

Yet 59 retains its aura. But for how long? Goydos is not an alarmist. “I think we’re going through a phase—especially last year, the weather was so good,” he says. “We’ll see how things go this year. Golf courses aren’t getting any easier. I think the players are getting better. But no, I think it’s a pretty cool number. I don’t see an outbreak of 59s anytime soon.”

Beck has a different take. “It amazes me that no one has shot 58 on the PGA Tour,” he says. “It will happen. Soon. And I expect we’ll see more 59s too. The courses simply can’t contain these guys anymore.”

As more players reach the 50s, does it devalue the accomplishment? “I don’t think so,” says Geiberger, who is still widely referred to as Mr. 59. “It’s fun for those of us who have already done it. It calls attention to our accomplishment and makes us relevant to a different generation of fans and reporters.”

Indeed, it is left to the rest of us to debate the merits of the 59s and attach a larger meaning to them. For the five men who have shot that number on Tour, doing so remains an intensely personal experience. Near the end of a long interview Geiberger drifted into a dreamy reverie. “I was out of my mind,” he said softly. “I’d have to say it was the best four hours of my life.”