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Phil Mickelson’s 59 1/2

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.

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23 Responses to Phil Mickelson’s 59 1/2

  1. hazzard says:

    Sounds like he was inches from a 58. Now THAT would be memorable.

  2. Yes he just missed 59 and in that way it’s like Galarraga. But if he went to the last 2 needing 1 birdie for 59, that means he needed 2 for 58. And just came oh so close to both of them. So the take away for me is not how close he came to 59, but how close he came to 58.

  3. Phil shot -11 on this par 71 course. If he had made the birdie, he would have shot -12.

    Of the five golfers that have shot 59, three of them did it on a par 72, and shot a -13. Sorry, but while I understand number 59’s significance, the -13 is a far far impressive record, and Phil wasn’t shooting for it on his last hole today.

    If he had made the putts on BOTH 8 and 9 in his last two holes, and shot a 58, it would have been historically impressive, but a 59 and a -12 is the equivalent of hitting 59 HR in a season pre-steroids. Incredible … but not equivalent to the best of all time.

    • Sean OLeary says:

      That was your takeaway from this post??? Sad.

    • Robert says:

      I’m not sure I’d think of it this way. On a par 72 course, you (usually) have the benefit of four par 5s…obviously the easiest scoring holes in golf and infinitely easier to make an eagle on. If, for example, they’re all reachable in 2, then I’m not sure I’d call shooting 59 on them harder at all.

      At the very least, golf course difficulty for professionals has very little to do with what par for the course is. As an obvious example, shooting 64 in the US Open at (par 70) Pebble is harder than shooting 59 in Vegas or Tuscon at a regular tour stop where the 59 is TWICE as many under par.

    • Robert, I understand what you’re saying, but the only way it wouldn’t be harder is if shooting an eagle (not a birdie) on those par 5s was as easy as shooting a birdie on a par 4 … not the case on these course that we’re comparing. I think if you look at the courses where these were shot, I think the par-72 59s stand out that much more.

    • Robert says:

      My point is that par doesn’t tell us what you’re attributing to it, that would really be course RATING, which is normalized across different courses and agnostic of par. And even that, though a lot better, could mislead us.

      As an example, in the last couple of weeks, there were three 62s shot in the final round at PGA West (par 72) and just two 63s shot in the final round at Waialea (par 70). If somebody dropped a 59 in there, it would clearly be a better round at Waialea, even though par is lower, because the course was harder (both relative to par and in gross strokes).

      If we wanted to identify the “best” 59, figuring out how much it exceeded the rest of the field by on that particular day would probably be the way to to go about it. That might coincide with what par is for the course or it might not, but it’s not obvious.

  4. James Smyth says:

    For the three perfect game misses…I’ll go with Monte Ward, Lee Richmond (the first two from 1880) and Charlie Robertson (in his 5th career start!)

    • Matthew says:

      This comment has been removed by the author.

    • Matthew says:

      They wouldn’t let me edit my original comment. Robertson’s was in his 4th career start (3rd of 1922), but his 5th game overall. Still, it’s very impressive. I missed that one too (along with Len Barker).

      I remembered Richmond (b/c it’s the first ever), and Ward (b/c he pitched for Providence and I’m from RI so I just always remembered it.)

  5. Well, if it makes Phil feel any better, Jim Joyce him down for 90.

  6. Masa Chekov says:

    Another interesting near miss of a perfect game was last year in Japan. Yomiuri’s Sugiuchi was completely dominating Rakuten in an interleague game. He lost a perfect game on the 27th batter on a very, very, very questionably called walk to a pinch hitter.

    He did get the no hitter, at least.

    The counterpart to Don Larsen’s perfect game is also from the Japan leagues. The 2007 Japan Series was decided in game 5 by a 1-0 score, Chunichi Dragons over Yu Darvish and the Nippon Ham Fighters. Very middling pitcher Daisuke Yamai pitched the first 8 innings perfectly, but his manager thought he was losing it a bit so he pulled him in the 9th for the closer Iwase.

    I’ll repeat that: In the deciding game of the championship, a manager pulled a starter in the midst of a perfect game in the 9th inning for a reliever. THAT’S memorable.

  7. I suppose we’re on the subject of things that didn’t happen which you nevertheless remember forever, and number one on my list is and always will be the 1989 first round game in the NCAA’s, where # 16 Princeton lost by one point to Georgetown.

    Joe’s point I guess about Mickelsen is that his round the other day is somehow MORE memorable than if he had nailed the 59, and that’s definitely not the case with the Princeton game. As amazing as that game was, it would have been even amazinger–and to the topic even more memorable– had Princeton’s shot at the buzzer gone in.

    But not by all that much, because the narrative in that game is about Carrill’s brilliant coaching strategy, and that is just as true in this universe as in the one where Mueller’s shot went down.

    • Robert says:

      This comment has been removed by the author.

    • Robert says:

      I think Princeton/Georgetown would be considerably more memorable if Princeton pulled it out, especially over time. In 1989 I’m not sure we knew how unlikely that upset was, given the newness of the 64 team field. But now it’s obvious…there have only been 12 1/16 games that ended in single digits. If one of Princeton, East Tennessee State, or Murray State (the 3 nearest misses) had pulled the upset you could make the argument that it would be the most historic non-title game moment in the history of the tournament, though it still could trail a few moments, like Laettner’s shot.

      The 15/2 upsets are memorable, the first 16 seed that pulls the shocker will be immortal.

  8. nycgeoff says:

    Wait, why is the athletes-accepting-a-gay-teammate story nonsense?

  9. Mike H. says:

    Eh, call me when he can shoot 11 holes-in-one in a single round on the way to a 38-under-par game, like Kim Jong Il did at his very first attempt at playing golf.

    And yeah, Kim Jong Il’s score was TOTALLY accurate – each of his 17 bodyguards vouched for it.


  10. Scott says:

    I don’t think you can really compare this to Galarraga’s perfect game. I mean, he actually did pitch a perfect game, but had to face a 28th batter after an incompetent ump blew an easy call. But Mickelson did not get a 59, or a 59 and 1/2, he got 60 because he missed a shot. That’s a pretty big difference.

  11. kerouac says:

    Harvey Haddix says hello. His 12-inning perfect game in 1959 will never be duplicated again.

  12. Nate says:

    I always remember the perfect game pitchers thanks to The Baseball Project’s song “Harvey Haddix” 🙂

  13. Venu says:

    Small correction Joe, on May 2, 2010, Ryo Ishikawa shot a 12-under 58 — the lowest score ever on a major tour — to win The Crowns for his seventh Japan Tour title.

  14. I think Bowling Tournaments will be great
    Website. Which carey spots news and information.

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