There are certain accomplishments in sports — a no-hitter in baseball, a perfect game in baseball, a 300-game in bowling, a golden set in tennis, a 250-yard rushing game in the NFL, a four-homer day, a 59 in golf — that are cool because fans will remember them. They are called “historic” but I don’t think of them exactly that way. A historic moment in sports, to me, is a moment that is singular and important and essentially unrepeatable: Bill Mazeroski’s homer … Joe Montana’s drive against the Bengals … Michael Jordan’s shot against Utah … Kirk Gibson’s homer … Mike Eruzione’s goal … Pete Sampras’ winning his U.S. Open quarterfinal despite vomiting on the court … Michael Phelps’ eighth gold medal …
… those were moments when the circumstances and performance all came together on exactly the right stage, and something happened that will never happen again in the same way. That to me makes history.
These other moments are amazing and fabulous but I think of them more as memorable than historic. There have been 23 perfect games in baseball history. There have been 22 televised perfect games in bowling. There have been 12 rushing days of 250 plus yards — and can you name the only NFL running back to rush for 250 yards twice in a career?*
*Answer: O.J. Simpson — against New England in 1973 and at Detroit and, you might remember this, on Thanksgiving day 1976.
And there have been five golfers who shot 59 on the PGA Tour. We’ll get to them in a minute. Also, Annika Sorenstam shot 59 on the LPGA Tour in 2001, Notah Begay III, Doug Dunakey and Jason Gore have shot 59 on various developmental tours, and it was done a couple of times on the Japan Tour and a few times at various international and unofficial tournaments. Phil Mickelson, for instance, shot 59 at the PGA Grand Slam of Golf in 2004.
It is incredibly cool when someone shoots a 59 in golf. It’s a lot like a perfect game — as a fan you start to think about the possibilities way, way too early in the process. If someone is perfect through three innings in baseball (sometimes two) the perfect game senses start tingling a little bit and you start to pay closer attention. If someone starts a round of golf with three or four birdies in the first five holes, you start to pay closer attention and ponder the 59.
For a long time — 14 years — Al Geiberger was the only golfer to have ever shot 59 in PGA competition. He did it at the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic in 1977, and it made him sort of the Don Larsen of golf. Geiberger was a good player. He won 11 PGA Tournaments — including a PGA Championship — but he was very much in the second tier of golfers of his time. It was that 59 that set him apart. And for a surprisingly long time, nobody else did it.
Then, in 1991, Chip Beck shot 59 at the Las Vegas Invitational in 1991. Beck was a good golfer too — not as good as Geiberger, but he won four times on tour, and he finished second at a couple of U.S. Opens, and he would be mainly known (unfairly, I thought) for not going for the par-5 at the 1993 Masters when he finished second.
David Duval shot the third 59 — he did it at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in 1999. At the time, David Duval was not just a good player but a great one, the No. 1 player in the world over Tiger Woods, and so there was something especially thrilling about that 59. But Duval, for various reasons, would gradually decline and then suddenly freefall.
Paul Goydos shot a 59 at the John Deere Classic in 2010 — Goydos has generally been a steady tour workhorse who has never finished Top 10 in a major championship. Then the likable Stuart Appleby shot 59 at the Greenbrier Classic — Appleby has won nine times on the tour and made some noise at various major championships and is a fine player.
But you couldn’t call any of those players “great.” None of the great players — not Nicklaus, not Palmer, not Trevino, not Player, not Watson, not Faldo, not even Woods — have shot 59 in PGA-sanctioned golf tournament. So, it’s not like a 59 is something that makes a great career. It is, instead, a single shot of glory, and it’s something special because people will remember it.
That’s why I think, in some ways, Phil Mickelson’s near-59 Thursday was in a weird way cooler and even more memorable than if he had actually shot 59. Oh, sure, I wanted him to shoot 59 in the same way I always root for the pitcher to finish off the perfect game. As soon as I heard about Mickelson tearing up the course — he shot 29 on his front nine — I raced to the Golf Channel to watch the last few holes. For a while, it looked like he had a shot at 58, which would have been awesome. But he cooled off slightly. He needed a birdie on one of his last two holes to get 59.
I groaned when he left his putt inches short on No. 8 (his 17th — he started on the back nine).
And I groaned louder when, on the 9th hole (his 18th), his birdie putt for the 59 slid to the low side at the last instant, horseshoed and somehow stayed out. It was so close, such a frustrating moment. Mickelson — star-crossed Phil Mickelson — kind of said it all with his grim smile after the ball refused to go in. Afterward, he said he still did not know how it stayed out of the hole.
So, yeah, frustrating. Then I thought — you know what? I’ll remember that forever. I mean, in the end, isn’t that the point? The memory, I mean. Look: It’s the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Cool tournament, lots of fans, but I have no idea who won that last year … or the year before … or the year before that … or ever, really. And to be honest, I had to look up the guys who shot 59 — I remembered Geiberger, Beck and Duval and had trouble coming up with Goydos and Appleby.
Phil’s 59 1/2 … yeah, that’s going to stand out. Others have made this connection too — it’s a lot like Armando Galarraga’s imperfect game. In that game, umpire Jim Joyce missed the two-out call that would have complete the perfect game. It seemed rotten at the time — Joyce was literally in tears over it — because it seemed to cost Galarraga his moment. But, instead, his moment is more memorable. There have been 23 perfect games, and can you name them all? I couldn’t (three short — I’ll let you guess which three).
But Armando Galarraga’s game — unforgettable. That’s sort of how I feel about Mickelson. Two weeks after he got himself in all that hot water by mouthing off about his taxes, one week after playing so poorly that he had to call in Butch Harmon to fix him, the guy went into the final two holes needing one birdie to shoot 59. Incredible. Yes, he left the first one inches short, he lipped out on the second. It was probably symbolic of Mickelson’s mercurial career in some ways, but I’ll leave it to others to discuss that.
For me, he made a blah Thursday afternoon of Super Bowl week — with more Ray Lewis talk and more nonsense about whether athletes would accept gay teammates — into a colorful and thrilling afternoon. Sure, I wish he had shot 59. But — and it’s strange, I know — I’m pretty sure I’ll remember it this way better.