The nicest person I know in professional golf is Al Geiberger, the
original Mr. 59. In 1985 I caddied some for Skippy. (His
peanut-butter-inspired nickname was still widely used back then.)
At the Byron Nelson Classic the tournament host was sitting on the
1st tee, greeting the competitors. Al said, "Mr. Nelson, I'd like
you to meet my caddie." I was a kid on his bag, nothing more. Al
introduced me to Nelson for only one reason: He knew it would make
Al Geiberger--winner of the 1966 PGA Championship and 10 other
Tour events, twice a Ryder Cupper, 19 times a winner as a senior
and super senior--was always aware of other people. Among elite
golfers, that's not a common trait.
His swing came out of a golfing dream. Former Tour player Frank
Beard says he has seen only two better ball strikers: Lee Trevino
and Ben Hogan. Jack Nicklaus says that without the many
distractions in his life, medical and personal, Geiberger would
have been all-world. His problems came out of a grown-up's
night-mares: two marriages that ended in divorce, money woes, a
series of major surgeries, a father killed in a plane crash, an
infant son drowned in a pool.
He played five Champions tour events in 2002, one in 2003 and none
in 2004. The word on tour this year has been that Geiberger was
done, that he was needed at home in Palm Desert, Calif., where he
lives with his wife, Carolyn, and their two children, Allen Jr.,
16, and Katie, 13. Carolyn has never been the same since the awful
death of their first child, Matthew, 16 years ago. Geiberger has
four other children from his first two marriages: Lee Ann, who
lives in Italy and works in publishing; Brent, a Tour player; John,
the men's golf coach at Pepperdine; and Bryan, a mini-tour player.
Last September, Geiberger turned 66. His pension payments have
kicked in. Most people have retired by that age, and you couldn't
blame Geiberger if he wanted to as well. Except that he doesn't.
Word on the tour is wrong.
June 14, 2004
"I'm going to play again pretty soon here," Al told me recently. He
has a voice like Johnny Miller's, a Californian's voice. Nothing
ever seems to get him too excited.
"He wants a different final taste in his mouth," says his son John,
referring to his father's lone tour appearance last year, in March,
at the Toshiba Senior Classic in Newport Beach, Calif. Geiberger
shot a 74 in the first round, topped his opening tee shot in the
second round and proceeded to make a series of double and triple
bogeys before being gently led off by a tour official.
One weekday last month Geiberger took me to breakfast in a little
carry-your-own-tray place called John's, down Highway 111 from Palm
Springs and near the Geibergers' remote hilltop house in the
California desert. John's is popular with retirees, golfers and
people coming out of the early-morning AA meetings at a nearby
church hall. These days Geiberger qualifies in all three
categories. He sat in his customary seat.
"I was sitting right here when I had my birthday," he said. That's
how he refers to the Monday morning in February when his three
oldest sons, plus Beard and four other old friends, surrounded
Geiberger and performed an intervention, a frequent precursor to
the 12-step program and a part of Geiberger's new favorite movie,
28 Days, in which Sandra Bullock gets sober. They came in one by
one, Brent straight from the L.A. Open. Beard, a recovering
alcoholic who has not had a drink in more than 22 years, was
instrumental in setting up the gathering. "At first I thought, This
is some coincidence," Geiberger said, "but not for long."
His sons and friends knew what Geiberger suspected but could not
admit to himself: To use the plain language they did, he was a drug
addict and needed help. They had seen evidence mounting for a
decade. The years 2002 and '03 were almost lost. His friends and
family watched in pain as Geiberger isolated himself more and more.
His golf was lousy, his once-vaunted rhythm noticeably off. His
behavior at times, to use Geiberger's word, was "loopy." He had
been arrested for driving under the influence and inexplicably
collapsed twice while walking. He wasn't returning calls, he was
missing his children's birthdays, he was playing almost no golf, he
was barely leaving the house. In his lethargy he had put an extra
30 pounds on a frame that for years had been so thin he had needed
intraround peanut butter sandwiches to keep his energy up. His
interventionists marched him off to the nearby Betty Ford Center.
"Can't I go home first?" Geiberger asked. The answer was unanimous:
No. And the only thing Geiberger felt was relief.
Geiberger recently completed a two-month program at Betty Ford, the
first month as a resident, the second as an out-patient. He feels
he's learned more about himself in eight weeks than he did in his
first 66 years. Now comes the rest of his life.
"I've been carrying around all these things--anger, disappointment,
frustration, mourning my son's death, trying to be strong for
Carolyn--and never addressed the things I need to be happy," he
says. He doesn't even mention the physical stresses his body has
endured over the years, including the emergency removal of his
large intestine in 1980. He answered all sorts of personal
questions about his health then, in the hope that he might help
others. Now he's ready to do the same thing again, for the same
reason. But he says he knows now that his first responsibility is
to look out for himself. He has never felt that way before. "You
know how on the plane the stewardess says, `Put on your own
breathing mask before helping others'?" Geiberger says while giving
me a driving tour of Betty Ford. "That's because you can't help
others if you're dead."
He is in his modest Chevy Impala, having given up the showy
Mercedes he had been driving. He and Carolyn are selling their
expensive, rustic house off a winding dirt road, a 3 1/2-acre
property that requires a small battalion of workers to tend to the
many horses and dogs, the pool, the septic tank. They are trying to
simplify their lives. Geiberger has been making steady progress
through a heap of bills sitting on a table in a house that is
almost devoid of artifacts from his long professional life. One of
the few golf mementos is a letter from Gerald R. Ford, in which the
former president describes the sorry state of his game.
At the Betty Ford Center, Geiberger came to accept that he was
addicted to the medication Ambien, which he took at night to sleep
and during the day to deaden his emotional pain. He also came to
accept that, even though he was never more than a moderate
drinker--he'd have a glass of wine or two with dinner--he was an
alcoholic, "because even one drink is one too many for me," he
says, "in combination with all the Ambien I was taking." Now he
goes to several Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every week and has
stopped taking Ambien completely. Like a lot of people in recovery,
he has become a pathological truth teller.
"I was taking eight 10-milligram Ambiens a day," Geiberger says.
"I'd take a pill like some people drink a beer, simply to help me
relax." He'd take the drug before rounds, during rounds, after
rounds. He knew it was affecting his balance, and therefore his
golf, and certainly his relationships, but he needed the relief the
drug was giving him. When he could no longer fool doctors into
giving him prescriptions, he'd give piles of cash to a man he knew
who would buy the drugs at Mexican pharmacies over the border from
San Diego. "If the drugs weren't there on the day I was expecting
them and I was out, I could be very, very cranky," he says. While
on Ambien he'd have a glass of wine with dinner, his speech would
become slurred, and he'd slip off to a place where nobody could
Beard worries now that too many people will try to reach Geiberger,
who has always been innately accommodating to fans. He feels it is
far too early for Geiberger--in a sober state that is brand new to
him--to even consider returning to the fish bowl that is the tour,
and he has told him as much. "The problems are self-inflicted,"
Beard says, "but we learn to stay away from environments that can
trigger a relapse. When you first stop drinking, you don't go to a
bar and watch your friends drink. Now I can do it, but that's after
many years." Beard worries that tournament golf and the travel it
requires create stress, and trying to remain sober with the public
watching will create even more stress. He cites John Daly as a
public person who went back to work far too soon after going
through a 12-step program. He says the organization is called
Alcoholics Anonymous for a reason.
The Geibergers have a high regard for Beard, who has become an
intimate friend to Al this year, but they feel a return to
tournament play, when Al is ready, will serve him well. (Geiberger
says he may return as soon as the June 25-27 FleetBoston Classic in
Concord, Mass.) "He loves golf, and he loves being around people,"
says Brent Geiberger, who is Al's adopted son. "He had this blanket
of haze over him for so long. He was buried by the burden of trying
to make everything right at home. Now it's as if he's outside the
bubble and he can see from the outside in." What he sees is that
it's not up to him to make everything right, that he cannot make
everything right. The pains in his life, and Carolyn's life, are
part of his life. He's trying to find a way to cope that doesn't
include getting high every day. Now he has a support system. Brent,
John and Bryan are central parts of it. They are bonded to their
father by golf and by love.
Al and I went to the practice tee of a club the Geibergers belong
to only a couple of miles from the Betty Ford Center. Bryan was
there hitting balls. There's fury in Bryan's swing, as there is in
the swings of so many young professionals, Tiger Woods among them.
His father's swing is once again silky, but short because of the
extra weight he is carrying. Al mentioned something to Bryan about
the position of his left hand at address and instructed me to take
my club back in one smooth move. It's in his nature to do things
for other people. He can't help it.
Early the next morning Al went off to one of his AA meetings. He
used to hate getting up early, but now he likes it. At the meetings
he can talk about himself or not, as he chooses. He says he has
found a new life at the meetings, a place where he can give help
and get it too.
"I was taking eight 10-milligram Ambiens a day," Geiberger says.
"I'd take a pill LIKE SOME PEOPLE DRINK A BEER, simply to relax."
"He had this blanket of haze over him for so long," says Brent.
"NOW IT'S AS IF HE'S OUTSIDE THE BUBBLE and he can see in."