If the game of golf were the English language, Al Geiberger's round yesterday would have been an exclamation point on the front nine and a question mark on the back.
His par 35 going out -- 13 putts and four greens in regulation -- made the statement: "Something is happening."
His 40 coming back -- 17 putts and thre games in regulation -- asked, "What's happening?"
Geiberger, lanky and flagpole thin and wearing a white visor, white shirt and pink-checked pants, is a 20-year tour veteran. He is an easygoing man who laughs spontaneously on and off the course.
Among the public, he is known as "Mr. 59," for his record, 13-under-par round in Memphis in 1977, the lowest score ever shot on the PGA Tour.His colleagues respect him as a sound theorist who has studied the mechanics of the swing and applied his finding to his own game. He is the rare combination: a graceful stylist who can score with frenzy.
In watching him (Geiberger) play yesterday, I noticed he had one quality that neither of his playing partners possessed: controlled assurance.
On at least half a dozen holes, Geiberger would mishit and shot and seem to be about to let things get away from him. But as though he had a hidden fund of interior calm, he kept advancing the ball.
It helped that he came off the first green with a birdie-3, after sinking what he called "a 30-foot serpent." On each of the next four holes, Geiberger either hit poor approach shots or hit them passably but limply. Yet he bogeyed only once.
I asked Geiberger if after shooting par for nine holes and knowing that a man can't go on forever getting up and down every time, he had an anxiety attack.
"No," he said laughing, "it actually fired me up a bit.I've been putting so badly of late that I couldn't help but feel good about sinking all those putts, even if they were for pars."
Geiberger's worst lapse on the front nine came on the fourth hole, which he bogeyed. This is a 420-year par-4, with a blind drive over a sharp hill. Geiberger drove down the left of the fairway, which gave him an open alley between the bunkers guarding the green. Surprisingly, he dumped his ball into the sand before the green.
"I did about two or three things wrong on that shot," Geiberger said after the round. "So that accounted for about eight yards less. Then I took off 10 yards for the hardness of the green. So I really had only 142 yards. That's right -- iron distance. But it was short. After all that great deciphering, I should have hit a seven-iron."
While many pros were saying yesterday that Congressional is "long and tough," and letting their analysis of the course go no deeper than that, Geiberger's mind was trying to probe the exact causes of the course's difficulty.
"Sure," he said, "the greens here are fast. But it isn't just because they are cut low. It's because these greens aren't grassy. In a given square inch of green, there just are not that many blades of grass. You can have greens mowed extremely close but if the grass is thick they will still be relatively slow. Here it's different. The grass is thin."
Among other effects, this nuance meant that Geiberger's caddy -- a local man supplied by the club who may have known the greens when caddying for members -- suddenly had trouble reading them, and advising Geiberger.
Coming to the 18th tee, Geiberger was four over par. On this nine, he was having the same trouble that plagued Andy Bean and Gary Player: not being able to get close to the pin."Maybe I should have started to bounce them into the greens," he said, "except there's no bouncing room in front of these greens. A high ball hitter, which I'm not, has an advantage this week."
On the 18th, Geiberger drove down the left side of the fairway, about 20 yards behind Bean but 50 yards ahead of Player, who had hooked into the maples.
"I had a sidehill, hook lie," Geiberger said. Knowing that trouble -- a pond on the left -- was waiting if he didn't adjust to the lie by overcompensating with a slight push to the right, Geiberger thought he had the situation under control. "But then I created my own anxiety, from within. I had to wait for Gary to hit out of the trees. Then, also, I heard the noise of the people walking down the right side of the fairway.
"I should have stepped back and gathered myself together. But I went ahead. I hooked it into the water. And that was funny in its own, odd way. I remember thinking to myself as I walked down the 18th that I haven't really hooked a shot all day."
Geiberger did on the 18th green what he did on the first: canned a serpent.
But now it was for a bogey, not a birdie.
Unlike Bean, who left the 18th after playing some water polo himself and taking a double bogey for a 76, Geiberger wasn't disappointed with his play. For one thing, he has won enough tournaments, including a major, not to let a so-so round get to him. And for another, he is in a frame of mind to appreciate Walter Hagen's sage and lyrical advice about the importance of taking time to smell the flowers. Geiberger has had such a run of poor health that just being up and around is cause for elation.
"For a long time," he said, "I've had intestinal troubles. But lately, it's been anemia. At the Tournament of Champions, my red blood cell count was so low that my doctor put me on an iron cupplement program to build it up. And right now, I'm on a two-week cortisone shot."
Trying to shoot par while not feeling up to par created problems, Geiberger said. "Should I use up what strength I have to play and practice, or should I rest and not play, but risk getting rusty? Then if you play bad, you lose your confidence, even though I would feel rested."
How Geiberger will figure that out he didn't say. "That," he said, sighing, "is a question about life as much as it is about golf."