Phil Mickelson's Brush with 59: Dissecting Golf's Most Enigmatic Record

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Phil Mickelson's Brush with 59: Dissecting Golf's Most Enigmatic Record
Hunter Martin/Getty Images

The enigma we can simply call “59” awoke recently in Arizona following a three-year hibernation.  Its capacity to breed hysteria remains formidable.  Even in a context as undramatic as the first round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open.  

That Phil Mickelson was involved ensured the drama would be disproportionate to the event.

Golf is a game where better shots can produce crueler outcomes.  Mickelson might have slept better had his 25-foot birdie putt for a 59 never threatened the hole.  As most know, it horseshoed around the edge without dropping.

Golf Channel commentator Frank Nobilo proclaimed, “In a weird way, this is so Phil, isn’t it, through his career?”  That sentiment was seconded by The Sport Network's Kevin Currie. He wrote that Nobilo had "summed it up perfectly" and called the putt "a cruel twist of fate."

Mickelson has known his share of disappointment.  There are those convinced that a tragic subtext threads through his career.  For these individuals, even the slightest hiccup becomes further evidence of that tragedy. 

Mickelson himself added to the hyperbole.  After the round he called the near miss “crushing” and “heartbreaking.”   

Mickelson would have become the sixth player in PGA Tour history to shoot a 59.  Tying a record held by five others is not exactly the stuff of legend.  Disappointing, yes. 

But heartbreaking? 

Mickelson's putt for a 59

The history of “59” is the study of a record atypical in its evolution.

It was Al Geiberger who famously shot the first 59.  It came during the second round of the 1977 Danny Thomas Memphis Classic.  The lowest round to that point had been 60, shot seven times between 1951 and 1957.  That Geiberger became and remains “Mr. 59” is the chief perk of having done it first. 

Chip Beck shot a 59 in the third round of the 1991 Las Vegas Invitational.  It came on a course less than a year old with no rough.  But unlike Geiberger, he did not win the tournament.  Still, 14 years after the first, there was another 59.

It is here the story takes an interesting turn. 

David Duval was the finest player on the planet from late 1997 through mid-1999.  His final round gem at the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic proved the highlight of his brief dominance.  It also demonstrated that “59” was possible when the pressure and stakes were at their highest. 

How good was Duval’s ball-striking that day?  The average length of the 12 putts he made for 11 birdies and a dramatic 72nd hole eagle was four and one-half feet.  He turned a seven-shot deficit into a one-stroke victory over Steve Pate. 

Short of a 59 being shot in a major (a virtual impossibility as no player has broken 63), “59” had reached its apotheosis.  It was seemingly a logical point to start talking about shooting a 58.  

It was not nearly so simple.

Harry How/Getty Images
Duval at the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic

Between 2001 and 2010 several players shot 59s in various contexts.  Paul Goydos (2010 John Deere Classic) and Stuart Appleby (2010 Greenbrier Classic) did it in official PGA Tour events.  Annika Sorenstam did it on the LPGA Tour and Jason Gore on the Nationwide Tour (now the Web.com Tour). 

And we need not feel too sorry for Mickelson.  He shot a 59 at the 2004 Grand Slam of Golf, an unofficial PGA Tour event.  

Most records inevitably lose some prestige each time they are matched.  The hysteria surrounding Mickelson suggests that "59" is immune to that phenomenon.

The reason “59” has evolved differently than other records is actually quite simple.  Its significance has little to do with it being a record.  

Golf is an individual sport where success is measured chiefly through tournament victories.  Statistics involving the minutiae that go into winning (driving accuracy, greens in regulation, etc.) do not measure greatness.  They measure a player’s strengths and weaknesses.  

It is the same for scoring records.  The day after settling for a 60 Mickelson had an opportunity to break the PGA Tour’s 36-hole scoring record.  He missed tying it by a single stroke after double bogeying the 36th hole.  Most fans yawned.

There is admittedly a singular quality to “lowest round ever” that should seemingly make it more intriguing.  

Seemingly.  It is only intriguing because it is 59.  When the record was, say, 62, no one was particularly mesmerized by the prospect of 61.

Likewise, the fans in Geiberger’s gallery were not chanting “59!, 59!, 59!” simply because 60 was the record. 

A round of 59 is an inherently brilliant one.  Then again, so is a round of 60 (or, for that matter, any round in the low 60s).  Shooting a 59 is about brilliance.  But it is about more than that.  A 12-under 60 when par is 72 is better than an 11-under 59 when par is 70.  Every golfer alive would opt for the 59. 

No, the excitement surrounding that first 59 rested in its novelty.  Until Geiberger’s round the PGA Tour had experienced 61 years of scorecard monotony.  There had been thousands of scores in the 60s, 70s and 80s (and a few unfortunate ones north of that).  

A player had finally put a “5” in the tenths column.

If reducing this fascination to numbers seems trivial, let us be clear.  There is an inestimable psychological component to “59.”  Most golfers have felt the pressure of trying to finally break a particular number ending in “0.”  It could be 70, it could be 120.  It is usually somewhere in between. 

For a pro it is 60.  Period.  Mickelson told reporters that the difference between 60 and 61 is “[n]ot that big.” 

But he added that there is a “big barrier, a Berlin Wall barrier, between 59 and 60.” 

Discussions of “58” do not proliferate.  Because it is too daunting?  For some, perhaps, although a 58 was shot on the Japan Golf Tour by Ryo Ishikawa.    

The better reason is that, psychologically, going from 59 to 58 is like going from 61 to 60. The real challenge is to break 60.  The number that follows the "5" is of less concern.

Against this backdrop one can appreciate why “59” continues to resonate.  The question going forward is not whether it should.  It is whether our collective consideration of “59” needs a reality check.

Is it really, as one writer put it, "golf's holy grail?"  If so, where does that leave winning 18 majors?  Or winning 11 tournaments in a row?  Or, for that matter, any accomplishment that by itself would merit induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame?  

Mickelson said that to shoot 59 “in a tournament would have been historic for me . . .”  Historic for him.  But no longer historic with a big "H."  History rarely remembers the sixth individual to accomplish anything.

Mickelson falling short is not, as was suggested, "another painful reminder of the 'almosts'" that typify his career. And the term “so Phil” should be reserved for moments where a foolish gamble or errant shot costs him a tournament.  Not ones where he shoots 60 en route to a wire-to-wire victory. 

The 59 would have been a minor footnote in his Hall of Fame career.

The missed putt bore an eerie resemblance to the most famous putt of Mickelson’s career. His putt to win the 2004 Masters threatened to lip out before dropping.  Missing the putt would have meant a playoff with Ernie Els, which he might have lost.  Save terms such as “heartbreaking” and “crushing” for moments that really are.

It is also possible that Mickelson would have done more for “59” than it would have done for him.  

Many records are the product of greatness over a sustained period.  Others, to include “59,” are the product of very brief runs of excellence.  Such a record’s prestige often depends on who holds it. 

Sorenstam is the only woman to shoot a 59.  She is also the best female golfer of her era. This combination suggests that a 59–at least for women–can only be accomplished by the very best. 

That may or may not be true.  Of the four of the women to shoot 60 on the LPGA Tour, two have never won on that tour.  So lesser players have certainly come very close to a 59. Nonetheless, "59" for women is more prestigious for Sorenstam having shot it.  

Mickelson's winning putt at the 2004 Masters

A majority of the players who have shot 59 on the PGA Tour have been journeymen.  None of the five were great players for a sustained period. 

Mickelson, in contrast, is probably one of the top 15 players ever.  He has won more PGA Tour events and major championships than all five of those players combined.  

What Mickelson would have done for “59” should not be overstated.  It is mystical no matter who shoots it.  But it would have been elevated into the realm of “something great players do.”

It is an interesting paradox.  Journeymen can do it.  Why not superstars?  That none have does not reflect particularly well on "59."  

It suggests that 59s are not reserved for the very best. That they are quirky, more the product of lucky breaks than skill.  

There is certainly considerable luck involved.  How could there not be?  You spend several hours negotiating vast stretches of terrain riddled with various quirks and inconsistencies.  

So much needs to go right just to break 65.  To even approach 59 requires more or less everything going right.  

There is also the matter of where 59s have been shot.  All have come in lower-tier events. And all, with the exception of Geiberger's 59, in tournaments where low scores were plentiful.  

Elite players have certainly won such events.  But the reason they are elite is not because they manhandle easy courses.  It is because of how they perform on the toughest courses and in the most significant tournaments.    

A Mickelson 59 would have demonstrated that a great player can do it.  And a great player doing it would have given "59" additional legitimacy.  It would have reinforced the notion that talent and skill are part of the equation.   

So what about “58?”  It will never possess the aura of “59.”  But with each round of 59 the possibility of shooting 58 looms a bit larger. 

If someone gets to 58 it will certainly change the paradigm of “59” going forward.  The significance of “59” might not rest on it being a record.  Yet to retain its aura it needs to remain the record.  Part of its allure is that you are shooting the lowest number ever.  

No player in PGA Tour history has had a putt to shoot 58.  But it will happen.  If the putt is lengthy many will advocate safely two-putting to secure a 59. 

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Sorenstam en route to 59

And there will be those of us ready for the next chapter.  We will pray he takes an aggressive run at making the putt.

If the player makes the putt posterity will refer to him as “Mr. 58.”  Not a bad incentive. 

If he plays it safe and gets his 59?  Ho hum.  “Mr. 59” was taken long ago.  We can just give him a bumper sticker that reads, “Honk if You Shot a 59.”

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