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A Historic Chip

Oct. 21, 1991
Oct. 21, 1991

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Oct. 21, 1991

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A Historic Chip

The conditions may have been ideal, but Chip Beck's 59 was still a remarkable achievement

Let's concede that Chip Beck should have shot his 59 in the final round of the Masters in gale-force winds with someone else's clubs, with his wife in the hospital having a baby and with some jerk yelling "You're the man!" on every tee. Now, that would have been a 59 everyone could have respected.

This is an article from the Oct. 21, 1991 issue Original Layout

The 59 Beck did shoot? Child's play. The course was less than a year old. The greens were perfect. The roughs weren't rough. The wind didn't blow. Nearly everybody else was inside watching the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. And besides, let's face it, 500 grand—the golfer's portion of the $1 million bonus for breaking 60—just isn't enough to make a guy choke anymore.

Forgive the sarcasm, but when Beck achieved the feat in the third round of last week's Las Vegas Invitational, it was as if he had kicked an anthill. The asterisk-bearers and professional minimizers were up his pant leg in an instant. No way, they claimed, could Beck's 59 at the 10½-month-old Sunrise Golf Club be compared with the only previous 59 in PGA Tour history, which was shot by Al Geiberger in the second round of the 1977 Memphis Classic, on the mature, tree-lined course at the Colonial Country Club. Beck's 59 was tainted, they said, because he shot it on an easy course.

True enough. Sunrise has no rough and no shade. The freshly planted saplings lining the fairways are not much thicker than a flagstick, and when Tour sophomore Robert Gamez got a look at the place last week, he predicted that someone would shoot 59. So we're not supposed to be impressed that Beck made 13 birdies and five pars over 18 holes, that he broke 60 without benefit of an eagle or even one shot holed from off the putting surface, or that he stood over a putt worth half a million in cash without losing his lunch—and then made it.

"How can you belittle that?" said Jim Colbert, an ESPN golf commentator and a co-owner and co-designer of Sunrise, on Sunday. Colbert resented the implication that soft course design, and not Beck's shotmaking, was behind the score.

Yes, the scores in Vegas were low—low enough to invite ridicule. All but one of the 75 players who made the cut finished 10 under par or better. Because the Las Vegas Invitational is a 90-hole pro-am, the rough on the tournament's three courses was scalped to speed the play of the amateurs. That's why bogies were as rare as earmuffs in the desert. Bruce Lietzke shot a second-round 63 at Sunrise. Jim Gallagher Jr. and Dicky Thompson had course-record 61s at Las Vegas Country Club, where eventual winner Andrew Magee fired a 62.

"A turkey shoot" is how Steve Jones described the tournament after firing a 63 on Friday at Sunrise. Beck, even with his 59 and three other rounds in the 60s, finished two shots behind Magee and D.A. Weibring, who had five-round totals of 31-under-par 329 before Magee prevailed on the second sudden-death hole.

That kind of scoring could only dilute the impact of Beck's round. Starting on number 10 on Friday morning, Beck and his three amateur partners played in relative solitude until he made the turn in 29, seven under par. That's when ESPN got a whiff of history in the making and dispatched a hand-held camera to follow Beck, a 13-year Tour veteran with only three Tour victories, for the remainder of his round.

The story within the story is that Beck hadn't seen Sunrise until sunset. On Thursday, after shooting a 72 at the Desert Inn Country Club, he practiced putting at Sunrise, while his caddie, David Woosley, walked the course to ascertain the yardage on each hole. Neither man had ever set foot on the course until then.

"It's a good course, but a young course," Woosley said on Sunday. "Visually, it lacks definition, which made it easier, but more difficult, too. I'd say to Chip, 'You see that telephone pole half a mile down there? That's your target.' "

The you-point-I'll-shoot tactic proved significant. Beck has a tendency to look ahead to the next hole, which sometimes interferes with his ability to concentrate on the shot at hand. At Sunrise, Beck's mind "had nowhere to run to"—Colbert's words—because he never knew what was coming up. "It probably helped me stay in the present tense," said Beck, delighted by the insight.

He also seemed to feel little pressure. With six holes left to play, Beck, who was nine under at the time, walked over to Tour official Glenn Tait and asked if the bonus was in effect. When informed that it was, Beck said, "I have a feeling I'm going to do it."

Geiberger, known these 14 years now as Mr. 59, had recently told some of his colleagues on the Senior tour that he thought his record was safe for a while. The $1 million ($500,000 goes to charity), coupled with the media attention, he said, would place such enormous pressure on a golfer that he would probably have to hole out from the 18th fairway to shoot a 59. Geiberger had put his finger on the obvious flaw in the "easy course" argument: A zillion tournament rounds had been played on golf courses, easy and hard, and until Friday, only Geiberger had broken 60. In essence, the biggest hazards were in the golfer's mind, not on the course.

For Beck, then, the 7th hole (his 16th) at Sunrise was a par-5 with a million dollars guarding the entrance to the green. The eighth was a 191-yard par-3 over historical precedent. And the final hole was a 443-yard par-4 lined with anxiety. Beck needed birdies on all three to shoot 59.

He birdied the par-5 with a driver, a 227-yard two-iron and two putts. Then he got lucky. His five-iron on the par-3 hit a greenside mound and kicked back toward the hole, leaving an eight-footer for birdie. He rolled it into the cup.

Finally, the 9th hole: Standing in the center of the fairway after a perfect drive, Beck had 157 yards to the pin. He chose an eight-iron. Swinging smoothly, as he had all day, Beck launched a shot that flew straight at the flag, landed two feet short of the hole and skipped four feet past it. "It was a perfect golf shot," said Sunrise's head pro, Joe Kelly.

Not until he reached the green, Beck claims, did thoughts of the money and his place in golf lore make him wobbly. He asked his partners to putt out, and then he went to the side of the green to practice his stroke. "The putt got a little longer as I waited," Beck said.

Indeed, the big-money putt almost slipped off to the right of the cup, but it curled in at the last instant, to the roar of the gallery. "Oh, baby!" said Beck, hugging Woosley, his seeing-eye caddie.

An easy course? Perhaps. An easy 59? Get real! None of the other 155 pros came within four shots of 59 at Sunrise. Gamez, the prophet, shot 70. Fuzzy Zoeller, a former Masters champ, shot 75 and said, "I can't believe Chip made 13 birdies and I couldn't make one!"

Believe it. Those Sunrise saplings will probably be full-grown trees before anyone shoots a lower score than Beck shot in Vegas.

PHOTOROBERT BECKBeck's Bank Card: Thirteen birdies plus five pars equal $500,000PHOTOROBERT BECKA day after shooting 59, Beck got trapped into a mere 68.