40 years after his historic round, Al Geiberger is still 'Mr. 59'

By Mark Giannotto
Published on
40 years after his historic round, Al Geiberger is still 'Mr. 59'

At this point, almost 40 years after he earned the nickname, "Mr. 59," Al Geiberger has the story down pat.

He can tell you the temperature, the course conditions and what he thought before each shot during that magical Friday round at Colonial Country Club in Memphis. His telephone number even ends in the numbers 5959, and his business card features the scorecard from that day.

Though Geiberger won a PGA Championship and 21 events total on the PGA and Senior PGA tours, he embraces the fact that one afternoon became the defining achievement of his professional career. In many ways, as he approaches his 80th birthday, it now sustains him during a life that hasn't been all birdies and eagles.

"There's hardly a day that goes by that somebody doesn't say, 'Oh, hey, Mr. 59,' " Geiberger said over the phone last week. "I love talking about the 59. Otherwise, nobody would talk to me. I've told it so many times I can't forget."

MORE: Why golf's magic number remains 59, even though Jim Furyk shot 58

If he hadn't been the first golfer to card a 59 in a PGA Tour event on June 10, 1977, at what was then known as the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic, what happened since then might have consumed Geiberger.

During the next 40 years, he lost the golf clubs, the golf ball and even the bucket hat he wore while making history. He lost a son to tragic circumstances and lost his colon to surgery. Over time, he even lost his record when eight others finished with a 59 and Jim Furyk shot a 58 in August.

But Geiberger never lost his memories or his love for the game of golf, and they remain an indelible part of Memphis sports history as the 60th iteration of the event he will always be identified with gets set to tee off this week without him.

"It's probably the most iconic moment of this tournament," FedEx St. Jude tournament director Darrell Smith said.

The 59

There were signs the 20th annual Danny Thomas Memphis Classic would be an abnormal tournament before Geiberger began his second round in 1977.

Only two days earlier, former President Gerald Ford had made a hole-in-one during the event's pro-am. Meanwhile, as the scorching June heat eclipsed 100 degrees Friday and Geiberger started his historic 18-hole journey, a grass fire raged in the Colonial Country Club parking lot and burned eight cars. Due to winter damage to the course, "winter rules" also were in effect, which meant golfers were allowed to lift, clean and place the ball in the Bermuda grass fairways of the 7,249-yard layout.

But none of that was on Geiberger's mind as he teed off on the 10th hole along with playing partners Dave Stockton and Jerry Moore in the afternoon. Instead, less than three months after his father had died in an airplane crash off the coast of Spain, Geiberger thought about a lesson he'd been giving one of his sons in the days before arriving in Memphis.

Geiberger told his son to lower his hands on the club to help stay down on the ball longer through the shot and, in doing so, realized he should make the same adjustment. Combined with a putting session with his caddy in Atlanta two weeks earlier to address what he called "yips" after missing a second-consecutive cut, the then 39-year-old had a newfound confidence about his game.

Then came the opening hole of the round, when he sank a 40-foot birdie putt.

"I had a good swing thought coming into the week, both hitting the ball and putting," Geiberger said. "But if it works, you think, 'I've got it.' "

Though he carded two birdies in the first three holes, Geiberger's chase of history didn't begin in full until he approached the 15th tee. That's when someone among the crowd of 22,300 in attendance at Colonial Country Club "gave me some peanut butter and cracker sandwiches on the 14th green," Geiberger told The Commercial Appeal that day.

What followed was a seven-hole stretch in which he went 8-under par. A 90-foot wedge shot for an eagle at No. 1 -- his 10th hole of the round -- was the highlight.

In the moment, Geiberger says now, "I felt indestructible. I'm hitting it better and better and I'm holeing every putt."

By the time the surge ended on No. 3 with another birdie, Geiberger was 10-under through 12 holes. It was then that Moore turned to Stockton and said, "Well, I'm going to have something to tell my grandchildren, but it won't be about me," according to a June 11, 1977, story in The Commercial Appeal.

Still, Geiberger didn't know he was approaching history. He claims to have not even realized 59 was a record at the time. Being conscious of it all, he explained, would have likely derailed him.

"The kiss of death in golf is looking back and counting your score," Geiberger said.

But he did grasp he was in the midst of a special round as the group's gallery kept getting larger with each passing hole. He responded with consecutive pars that "felt like bogeys when I did it," Geiberger said.

So ahead of No. 6 -- Geiberger's 15th hole of the round -- he found a spot away from the crowd and began talking to himself. He thought back to his days at Southern California, when his college coach Stan Wood would often remind him to be more aggressive, and figured, "Now's the time."

And so, Geiberger proceeded to birdie three of his final four holes of the day, finishing out the round with an eight-foot birdie putt on No. 9 to set the record. He then gave the ball -- a Ben Hogan No. 1 -- to Danny Thomas to auction off for charity at a banquet the next evening.

"Fifty-nine? That's just hard to believe," Geiberger said immediately after the round was complete. "That's better than winning the tournament."

The 'Original 59'

Geiberger ended up winning the 1977 Danny Thomas Memphis Classic but not before coughing up the six-shot advantage he had after Friday's 13-under. He didn't break 70 the rest of the event, watched Gary Player briefly pull into the lead midway through Sunday's final round, and then drilled a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 14 to regain the lead for good.

But exactly two weeks after breaking one of golf's hallowed marks, Geiberger noted last week, he also shot an 81 at a tournament in Dallas. From there, he won only once more on the PGA Tour. It was emblematic of the ups and downs he would encounter in the coming years.

Along the way, Geiberger endured two costly divorces, as well as a 1980 ileostomy procedure that resulted in the removal of his colon and forced him to wear a colostomy bag the rest of his life. Then, in 1988, he and his third wife, Carolyn, went through unimaginable tragedy when their 2-year-old son, Matthew, died in an accidental pool drowning.

"It still affects both of us," Geiberger said. "You feel guilty when it happens and then you feel guilty forgetting about it happening. It's a tough thing that never leaves you."

Nonetheless, Geiberger forged ahead and kept on winning golf tournaments. He captured 10 titles on the senior circuit, now known as the Champions Tour, from 1987 to 1996. He could not, however, avoid financial issues.

They initially cropped up during the end of Geiberger's PGA Tour run, which is when the "Mr. 59" moniker first came in handy. It opened the door to corporate events that kept the money flowing just enough until he was eligible for the senior tour at age 50.

Geiberger made just more than $1.2 million during his entire time on the PGA Tour, and his 1977 win in Memphis netted him $40,000. In comparison, last year's FedEx St. Jude Classic champion, Daniel Berger, took home $1.1 million. The transition to the PGA Senior Tour during the 1980s and '90s proved more lucrative for Geiberger, who estimated he earned an additional $4 million to $5 million there.

In 2004, though, an addiction to pain and sleeping pills led to treatment at the Betty Ford Clinic. By 2013, unable to live off small pensions from both tours and more than $200,000 in unpaid taxes hanging over his head, Mr. 59 had to auction off his memorabilia collection.

The Wanamaker Trophy from his 1966 PGA Championship went for $54,754, according to Golf Digest, and the clubs he used to card that 59 in Memphis were sold for $10,832. They now reside in the Brandenberg Historical Golf Museum in San Jose. The Ping putter from that day is currently displayed outside the office of Ping CEO John Solheim, according to Geiberger.

In total, Geiberger earned $130,000 and said the entire process was "a little tough." He currently lives in a La Quinta, Calif., apartment with Carolyn and describes his financial situation as "getting by."

"I have to hustle a lot," Geiberger said. "Thank goodness for the 59. It actually helps me to get outside things where they bring in older players. Those things are important for income for me."

Often, this means paid appearances at charity golf events and clinics. He feels bad asking for money and, "if I was on easy street, I wouldn't mind doing it (for free)," he said.

It's here, though, showing others the smooth swing that made him famous, where Geiberger's passion for the sport shines through. He claims to still be perfecting his mechanics all these years later and learns about golf's latest technology through his six children. Among them, Brent played on the PGA Tour and won twice; John served as the golf coach at Pepperdine for 16 years; and Allen Jr. will attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open this week.

But most of all, Al Geiberger talks about the 59, which is why this week's FedEx St. Jude Classic at TPC Southwind will be bittersweet. He last appeared in Memphis in 2007 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the tournament and Geiberger hoped to come back to play Colonial Country Club's course once again on June 10.

Stonebridge Golf Club General Manager Johnny Lyon tried to help arrange it but couldn't line up a sponsor in time. FedEx St. Jude Classic officials elected not to commemorate the record during this year's event. Geiberger, though, will forever be linked to a steamy Memphis afternoon that remains part of golf history.

He still mentions, for instance, it took 39 years for someone to score lower than him and that Furyk's 58 came on a par-70 course. His 59, meanwhile, occurred on a par-72. Therefore, he finished 13 under and Furyk at 12 under.

For a time, he even copyrighted "Mr. 59." But Geiberger elected not to renew it several years ago.

"My new name is 'Original 59,' " he said with a laugh. "I was the original."

This article is written by Mark Giannotto from Commercial Appeal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to