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Life after 59

Al Geiberger has gone through the loss of a young son and rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic, but most people just want to talk about his historic round

June 10, 2007|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

So much has changed since that hot, humid day in Memphis, Tenn., 30 years ago when Al Geiberger made history.

Al Geiberger has changed.

He hasn't had much of a choice.

He became the first player to shoot 59 in a PGA Tour event 30 years ago today and ever since then, his life has been a seemingly endless series of traumatic events.

His colon was removed in 1980, and he has gone through two divorces that sucked his bank accounts dry, lost a 2-year-old son in a drowning accident in 1988 and undergone treatment at the Betty Ford Clinic for addiction to pain and sleeping pills in 2004.

Through it all, his record still stands. Chip Beck and David Duval have matched his feat on the PGA Tour, Annika Sorenstam did it on the LPGA Tour and Notah Begay, Doug Dunakey and Jason Gore have matched it on the Nationwide Tour, but nobody has broken it.

Just the same way life has not broken Geiberger.

"Golf is a humbling game," Geiberger said. "It really teaches you to deal with highs and lows, and I think that is what's gotten me through all this. I'm here today because of what I've learned from golf."

Mostly retired from competition since 2002, Geiberger, 69, clean, sober and in good spirits, recently accepted the position of professional emeritus at exclusive Stone Eagle Golf Club in Palm Desert.

His job there is simple: Be Mr. 59. He plays golf with VIPs and lends his image to help promote the private club. In between, he's a stay-at-home dad. The youngest of his six children, Katie, is 16 and a standout volleyball player at Palm Desert High.

He attends as many matches as he can, and he has a digital camera filled with pictures to prove it.

"I'm really enjoying being a dad," he said. "I missed out on a lot of it with my other kids when I was touring and then with the other stuff."

Yeah, that other stuff.

Almost 20 years later, Geiberger said losing his 2-year-old son still stings. He and his wife, Carolyn, took the loss hard, and Geiberger said that was part of the reason he sought refuge in pills. Ambien and prescription painkillers were his drugs of choice, and he used them to mask years of pent-up feelings over the death of his son.

"There were things I needed to address that I never addressed," he said.

His family intervened. His sons -- Brent, his second wife's son whom he adopted and now watches play on the PGA Tour; John, the golf coach at Pepperdine; and Bryan, who still dabbles in the mini tours -- arranged to send him to the Betty Ford Clinic in 2004.

He spent a month there and another in outpatient therapy, and it seems to have made all the difference.

"It seems like he's in a good spot now," John Geiberger said. "He's a model of perseverance. It's amazing that he's had some pretty high peaks and some pretty low valleys and he's been able to get through all of that."

The highest high isn't the one that put him in the history books. Geiberger counts the 1966 PGA Championship among his 11 PGA Tour victories, but rarely do people bring that up in conversation.

They all want to know about the 59. Geiberger said he has told the story so many times that he has different versions: the long, the medium and the short.

He shot it June 10, 1977, at Colonial Country Club during the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic. He birdied two of the first three holes, followed by two pars before the magic really began.

He played the next seven holes in eight under, making him 10 under through 12 holes. He needed three birdies in the last six holes but made pars on the next two.

"That's when I remembered something my college coach always told me," Geiberger said. "He told me 'You're too conservative.' So I said 'OK, I'm going to pull out all the stops here and if I screw up, it's his fault, not mine.' "

He made birdies on his 15th, 16th and 18th holes, draining an eight-foot breaker on the final hole to make history.

"It was a week when all the stars were aligned," said Dave Stockton, one of Geiberger's playing partners that day. "I mean it was one of the greatest rounds ever played. The course was in terrible shape. It was wet, and this was before we had these fancy lawn mowers that made the greens smooth."

The putter is what got Geiberger the record. Only his holed-out sand wedge for eagle on the 10th hole was a pin-seeking approach. Of his 11 other birdies, none came on putts closer than eight feet.

"I still remember the feeling of the squareness of the putter blade going through," Geiberger said. "It was a magical feeling. I thought I had it all figured out and I would never miss another putt."

Those who have made a run at his record encounter similar feelings, yet none has been able to break the record. Beck, the first to match the mark when he did it in 1991, said the reason is simple: Everyone runs out of holes.

"You have to make 14 birdies," Beck said. "That doesn't leave much room for pars or anything else."

And modern equipment, Geiberger said, makes things harder.

"It might help you make more birdies when you hit it farther," he said. "But as soon as you hit one off line, you're going to make a double bogey. You can't have a double bogey and shoot 58."

Geiberger's magic didn't last long. Though he won that tournament by three shots, he shot an 80 three weeks later.

He began feeling pains in his stomach and soon after, doctors told Geiberger that they needed to remove part of his colon. Two years later, the pain returned and Geiberger had to have the rest of his colon removed.

Since 1980, he has used a colostomy bag. Although he never won with it on the PGA Tour, he had 10 Champions Tour victories with it.

"You barely even know it's there," Geiberger said. "It's something I learned to deal with a long time ago. The way I figure, I'm above the ground, so that's all that matters."

--

peter.yoon@latimes.com

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