The temperature in the desert topped out at 107° on Aug. 26, 1988, typical for California's Coachella Valley in summer. Late that afternoon Carolyn Geiberger was preparing to take her sons, Matthew, 2, and Al Jr., 8 months, and her stepson, Bryan, 11, around the corner to the small swimming pool that serves the residents of Los Lagos, a housing development in Indian Wells, near Palm Springs. The baby was in his crib, Bryan was watching television in the living room, and Carolyn was in the bathroom getting ready when Matthew, barefoot and wearing a bathing suit, passed unnoticed through the living room and out the front door. Carolyn had had a safety latch installed on the door, but the cleaning woman had forgotten to reset it earlier in the day. The little boy found his way across the deserted street, around the corner, past the windows of a dozen houses, across a wooden footbridge and, finally, onto the hot pavement surrounding the inviting turquoise water of the unfenced pool.
Meanwhile, in Lexington, Ky., the first round of the Bank One Classic was complete," and senior golfer Al Geiberger was whiling away the time between dinner and sleep by window-shopping in a mall with John, his 20-year-old son, who was caddying for him. One of the nice things about the Senior tour is that sons can caddie. On the PGA Tour they rarely are old enough. Geiberger might have returned sooner to his hotel, where the red light on his telephone was flashing in an empty room, but he stopped to buy Patagonia jackets for himself and Carolyn. He had in mind wearing the jackets at the new house they were building for their family in the Santa Ynez Valley near Santa Barbara. "I went back and forth—what size? what color?" says Geiberger. "What a stupid decision to be making when your child is dying."
Carolyn found Matthew within minutes and ran home with him, on legs that threatened to crumple under her, to call for help, but it was too late. In the ambulance an emergency crew established a heartbeat, which was maintained artificially until Al could get home the next afternoon. Then the support equipment was removed, and the short life of Matthew Geiberger ended. "They did it so I would experience it, not just hear about how it was," says Geiberger.
When Geiberger turned 50 on Sept. 1, 1987, thereby becoming eligible for the Senior tour, it seemed the hard times were over. He had been through two bad marriages, years of bad health and financial desperation. But his golf swing was as pretty and as sound as ever, and his desire to compete, which had waned after too many years of not winning, was fresh again. He had a new wife, a one-year-old baby and another one on the way, and the bright prospect of a second chance in a sport that had been his life.
May 14, 1989
Geiberger hit the fairways of the Senior tour running. He won three of the dozen tournaments remaining on the schedule that fall and finished in the top 10 seven times. His prize money at the end of the year, $264,798, was $70,000 more than he had earned in 1976, his best year of 28 on the PGA Tour.
"He's a better player than he thinks he is," says Jim Blakely, the director of instruction at Desert Horizons in Indian Wells. "He has the best swing on any tour. He's sound mechanically, and that is enhanced by near-perfect tempo." When Al was 15, recalls Blakely, he was "a gangly kid with a loose, high school golf swing." At the time, Blakely was the pro at the Montecito Country Club in Santa Barbara. Ray and Mabel Geiberger, both avid golfers, had just moved there from Sacramento with their three sons. "Al takes after his father," says Blakely. "Ray was an admired man, a gentleman. I never heard a bad word spoken about him, and that's really unusual at a golf club, especially as he was chairman of the greens committee."
From Santa Barbara High, Al went to Menlo College and then to USC, where he played No. 1 on the golf team for two years, winning 34 of 36 matches. At the end of Geiberger's first season as a touring pro, a PGA official wrote in a news release, "Easily the best player to join the PGA Tour in 1960 was slender, self-effacing Al Geiberger, 22."
From 1960 to '65 Geiberger won three tournaments, and in 1966 he won the PGA. For the next eight years, however, he didn't win at all. He continued to play well enough through 1968, but in 1969 his marriage broke up, and he was bothered by an inflamed colon, which had given him periodic trouble since 1966. His game suffered. "Ulcerative proctitis is the name of the disease," says Geiberger. "When it flared up it was very painful, but you lived with it."
In 1973, Geiberger married again, and in 1974 he started winning again—one tournament that year, two the next, two the next. Then, on June 10, 1977, on a steamy Friday in Memphis, Geiberger broke golf's equivalent of the four-minute-mile barrier. With 11 birdies, an eagle and 23 putts on the Bermuda greens of the Colonial Country Club, he shot 29-30-59, a score no golfer in a PGA event has equaled and one which kept his name alive and the bills paid through the harder times to come.
"A great round of golf is a lot like a terrible round," says Geiberger. "You drift into a zone, and it's hard to break out of it. I've always been fairly conservative. If you see me going at the pins, you know I'm really playing well. That day the pressure built and built; everybody on the course was crowding around. I thought, Holy criminy, what have I gotten myself into? But walking to the 15th, I said, 'I'm hitting it so well and putting so well, why not pull out the stops?' [He birdied three of the last four holes.] It also helped that I didn't know 59 would be the record. Stupidity comes in handy at moments of crisis."
Now when he appears at a corporate golf outing, Geiberger hands out souvenir golf balls and business cards with the 59 scorecard reproduced on them. Fans still seek him out, 12 years later, to tell him where they were and what they were doing when they heard about his 59—"kind of like you remember how you heard about John F. Kennedy getting shot," he says.
People have only to look at Geiberger's smile-creased face to know he is approachable. "Al is the nicest guy you'll find walking around," says Lou Graham, a fellow pro who has known him for 30 years. Rafe Botts, a Senior tour player whom Geiberger has been helping with his game, says, "He's a giver, not a taker. I couldn't possibly afford to pay him for the amount of time he has spent with me."
A caddie has a different perspective, especially when his meal ticket has just shot an 80 (a "snowman," in caddie language), as Geiberger did in the first round of a tournament in February. Kim ("I'd rather you didn't use my last name") has caddied for Geiberger since he joined the Senior tour. "He's a very pleasant man to work for," says Kim, "but he comes off a triple bogey, and he still has time to say hello to everybody. I can't handle that. I'd like to work for a player who has the intensity of Bruce Crampton and the relaxed attitude of Al Geiberger. But nobody is like that."
There's probably a little Bruce Crampton in every golfer; some simply hide it better than others. Geiberger hides it completely. "Al's one of my favorite playing partners," says Graham. "He plays hard, and he never complains. He just goes along on an even keel. That's why he's been able to perform year after year."
In 1978 a physical exam turned up a growth that required the removal of a section of Geiberger's colon. He returned to the Tour in February 1979, and that May he won the Colonial National Invitation, but within a year the problem recurred.
Finally, at the 1980 Jerry Ford tournament in Vail, Colo., the pain became so acute that emergency surgery was performed. A mass of polyps, the size of a small fist, was found to be blocking his colon. Back in Santa Barbara, doctors, who told him he was flirting with cancer, performed a procedure called an ileostomy and removed his entire colon.
Geiberger's initial reaction to the prospect of dependence on an external pouch for eliminating body waste was depression. "They showed me this appliance, and I thought it meant the end of normal life, the end of golf certainly," he says. "I figured it was better than being six feet under, but not much."
Two events changed his outlook. One was learning from former Tour pro Tony Sills, who also had undergone an ileostomy, about a new appliance made by ConvaTec. "It was kind of like the Top-Flite ball," says Geiberger. "It beat the market by 10 years." The other was hearing from a hospital nurse that Rolf Benirschke, the field goal kicker for the San Diego Chargers at the time, had had an ileostomy. "Boy, did that pick me up," says Geiberger.
Now Geiberger and Benirschke are spokesmen for ConvaTec and cochairmen of the National Foundation for Ileitis and Colitis Sports Council. "I wasn't going to talk about it," says Geiberger, "but I realized it was no big deal and I could probably help a lot of people."
The one he couldn't help was himself. He was 45 years old, his second marriage was heading for a divorce that would prove to be very expensive, he had three children and two stepchildren to support, and his income from the PGA Tour wasn't even covering expenses. Furthermore, he would not be eligible for the Senior tour, which Lee Trevino has called "the biggest mulligan in golf," for another five years.
Geiberger calls the years from 45 to 50 his incubation period. His financial salvation during this time was corporate outings at about $3,000 apiece. "They've seen a lot of pros through some tough times," says Geiberger.
Al and Carolyn met when he was a young pro and she was the 15-year-old daughter of a Montecito member. When they had their first date, in 1983, she was 35, divorced and living with her mother near Los Angeles. She had been married to another touring pro, Buddy Allin, but she had no children, nor was she sure she could. At 46, Al was separated and living in borrowed quarters in the San Fernando Valley, his wife having kept their Santa Barbara house. The romance foundered a couple of times, but, finally, in July 1985, when Al's divorce was final, they were married. That fall Carolyn became pregnant.
"Al was in shock," says Carolyn. "Flabbergasted," he says. "My friends said, 'What are you doing?' But I said, 'You just have to see Carolyn and how happy she is.' When Matthew was born, I tapped into the excitement too. The second time I was only flabbergasted for a moment. Appreciation of kids is so much greater later in life. Sometimes I look at parents in their 20's, and I wonder if they know what they've got there."
Geiberger's agent at the time, Margaret Leonard, arranged a loan to provide Al and Carolyn with the down payment for the house in Indian Wells. "Santa Barbara was so expensive, and there were ex-wives and ex-husbands all over town, so we wanted to get away," says Geiberger. "Also, Palm Springs has so many golf courses, and I was getting ready for the Senior tour."
That house has been sold. Carolyn never returned to it after Matthew died. Al went back twice, once to gather a few belongings the family would need in their rented apartment in Santa Barbara, the next time, in February, to pack everything else and put it in storage until the house in the Santa Ynez Valley was completed. Eight months have passed. Carolyn has found a therapist, who is helping her through the emotional minefield of her mourning.
After six weeks Geiberger went back to making a living. "In the beginning it was hard to play," he says. "Your mind can pick up on so many things. For a while I thought I could still feel Matt hanging onto my pants leg walking down the fairway."
Geiberger still goes over what he calls the "what ifs." What if he hadn't shown Matthew the pool a week earlier? What if Carolyn hadn't taken a little longer than usual getting ready? What if Bryan had seen Matthew on his way through the living room, or the latch had been set, or the neighbors had noticed, or Al hadn't been 3,000 miles away?
"You go through all those things and finally you realize that's what an accident is," says Geiberger. "I could see that a little quicker than Carolyn could."
Recently a writer asked Geiberger how he felt, and he surprised himself by answering that he felt lucky. "As soon as I said it I realized I felt better," says Geiberger. "I'm alive. If the growth had been malignant, I'd be gone. I've had divorces, but I have a lot of nice kids. I'm in golf at a time when there's a Senior tour. I still feel lucky."
The '89 season is in full swing, and Geiberger and partner Harold Henning combined to win the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf tournament, in Austin, Texas, two weeks ago. Geiberger is now seventh on the money list, with $112,865. At the new house, on the outskirts of the little town of Solvang, he and Carolyn talk more about the future than about the past. "Over there," said Al one day, pointing to a mound of brush, "will be my chipping and pitching green."
Carolyn's touches are everywhere—big windows and bedrooms, an oak door with leaded glass. "A nice front door instead of a builder's door," she says.
"Life is little problems," says Al. "Every day you're solving them, and that's what keeps you going. You just hope they won't be too many, or too big."