“The Rarest Bird”
The following article appeared in Golf World on April 2, 2004… enjoy!
The double eagle is golf’s mystery guest. Although somebody with a brogue might have done it before him and not made the papers, Young Tom Morris is credited with the game’s first hole-in-one, an ace on the par-3 eight hole at Prestwick during the 1868 British Open. But there was no record of who made the game’s first double eagle, or who decided to also call it an albatross or even, with any precision, when the name took flight.
On April 8, 1935, a day after sinking the Big Bird of them all, a duce on the par-5 15th hole at Augusta National GC to get into a playoff at the Masters, Gene Sarazen referred to his shot as “a dodo.” Whatever you call it, the double eagle – a score of three under par on a hole – is elusive, the Dr. Richard Kimball of golf shots.
“The rarest bird,” says Champions Tour pro Dana Quigley, who has made two.
“A double eagle is not something you’re ever trying to make. You’re trying to hit the green in two, two-putt and get the hell out of there.”
There have been 82 double eagles recorded on the PGA Tour since 1970, never more than six in a year, no more than two by anyone. Rod Curl, Bob Murphy, Jim Gallagher Jr. and John Daly – who picked up his second at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic earlier this year – have a pair apiece. Jeff Maggert, whose 2 on the 13th hole during the 1994 Masters was the first on the reachable par-5 – and only the third in tournament history – also double-eagled the sixth hole at Royal Lytham & St. Annes at the 2001 British Open. He is the only golfer to record a double eagle in two major championships. “I was very surprised that it was the first double eagle at the 13th”, Maggert says. “I assumed there would have been others.”
But a long golf resume doesn’t guarantee one of the long wonders in tournament play. Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer each have two in casual rounds – Woods knocked in a pitching wedge for a double eagle practicing for the 1995 Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl GC in Wales, and they share a deuce on Isleworth’s par-5 seventh hole – but haven’t recorded any in competition. Neither has Byron Nelson, though he was known for hitting his fairway woods as straight as a row of corn. Even for a legend, even if it was just for kicks, you don’t forget an albatross. “I’ve had one double eagle, and I remember it well,” says Nelson, who turned 92 this year. “It was the 16th hole at Texarkana Country Club in 1934, the last year I was pro there. I was playing with Mrs. Farr, whose husband was president of the club. It was more or less a playing lesson – I wasn’t paying that much attention to my own game. The hole was about 575 yards but downwind and with no watered fairways. I hit a good drive and took a 2-wood. I hit it well, and I thought I’d get close to the green. The ball went out of sight in a little swale in front of the green, but then we saw it run onto the green and into the hole.”
Nelson has eight aces to his lone albatross, a ratio that hints at the probability of the two feats.
According to the National Hole In One Association, the odds of an average golfer making a hole-in-one are 12,700 to 1; for a tour pro, 3,700 to 1. The odds of making an albatross have been stated at about 6 million to 1. Dean Knuth, who was senior director of the handicap department at the USGA from 1981 to 1997 and now a Golf Digest contributing editor, says they’re lower than that but still great, about a million-to-one shot. That makes your chances of becoming one of the couple of hundred golfers a year to make a double eagle (as opposed to 40,000 aces) better than being killed by a shark (one in 350 million) or dying from a dog bite (one in 18 million) but worse than being struck by lightning (one in 555,000) or, for a woman, having quadruplets without the aid of fertility drugs (one in 729,000).
“They’re definitely far more rare than aces,” Knuth says. “Someone has to hit two great shots. You have to have length and ability. Only a small percentage of golfers, less then 10 percent, ever reach a par-5 in two. That means 90 percent of golfers don’t have a chance of making one.” For the fraction of players who possess enough skill to mix with the requisite luck to produce a double eagle, the reviews can be surprising.
“People ask if I’ve had a hole-in-one, and I tell them I’ve had a double eagle, and they’re not as impressed,” says former Wake Forest golfer Brent Wanner, who made his at the 2002 Carpet Capital Classic in Dalton, Ga., dunking a 237-yard 2-iron on the 15th hole. “You don’t believe it when it happens to you, and nobody believes you when you tell ‘em.” If Wanner thinks he has a problem in the persuasion department, he should have conversation with Mike Hilyer.
There is a subspecies of albatross – the hole-in-one on a par-4 – that demands only one great shot. Nine out of 10 golfers don’t have a chance of making one of those either. But Hilyer, a 52-year-old waste management expert from Georgia, hasn’t had any trouble beating the odds. At 6-foot-5, 275 pounds, Hilyer is a long-driving mountain of a man who has received a heap of good fortune from the golf gods. Ten times, between Sept. 18, 1994 and Nov. 25, 2000, on holes ranging from 295 to 361 yards, Hilyer has made holes-in-one on par-4s. “I’ve hit the stick a few more times,” he says plainly.
“I actually had my 11th for a couple of minutes. Apparently the flagstick was leaning, and we watched the ball pop out.” He has never aced a par-3. When he made his longest hole-in-one, in a charity tournament in Birmingham, Ala., the event was giving away a car for an ace on a par-3. “They felt guilty and went to Wal-Mart and bought me a VCR.” Says Hilyer, who can’t explain his peculiar good luck but now lets playing partners get to the green first when a shot looks good, “just so there isn’t any doubt.” Hilyer says he has known only “four or five” of the approximately 70 witnesses who have seen his 10 par-4 holes-in-one, the most of anyone.
Yet he has had to deal with the same kind of doubt encountered by Californian Norman Manley, who holds the amateur hole-in-one mark with 59, four on par-4s, including ones on back-to-back holes at Del Valle GC in Saugus, Calif., on Aug. 30, 1964. First Manley cut the corner on the 330 yard seventh hole with a 5-iron, then hit a 3-wood on the dogleg 290-yard No. 8. “I’ve spoken to several people who played with [Manley], and they said it was eerie when he got an iron in his hand,” says Mancil Davis, who is credited with 50 aces, the most by a pro.
“They thought the ball was going to go in. I know what that feels like. When I put the ball on the ground of a par-3, it’s a different thing than a second shot on a par-5.” Davis has 10 double eagles. “I’m probably more proud of those,” he says, “even though I’ve been able to make a living out of the holes-in-one. But an albatross requires two good shots and a whole bunch of luck.”
The grandfather of the double eagle, the birdie, was born at Atlantic City CC in Northfield, N.J., in either 1899, if you believe H.B. Martin’s 1936 book Fifty Years of American Golf, or 1903, according to Ken Robinson, the club’s historian. “Everybody has migrated to the 1903 [reference],” says Rand Jerris, director of museum and archives at the USGA. “That’s what the club says, so that’s what we go by.”
Around the turn of the century, “bird” was slang for something good, and it was the genesis for birdie, which came out of a match between a Philadelphian named Ab Smith, his brother, William, and George Crump, who would design Pine Valley GC. “I banged away with my second shot, and my ball – it was one of the new Haskels – came to rest within six inches of the cup,” Ab Smith told Martin. “I said to George Crump, ‘That was a bird of a shot and here I only get a paltry sum from each of you. Hereafter, I suggest that when one of us plays a hole in one under par that he receive double compensation, and this goes for everyone in the match including partners.’ The other two both agreed and we began right away, just as soon as the next one came, to call it a ‘birdie’. Naturally, ‘eagle’ was the result when one scored two under and later came the ‘double eagle.’” Double eagle didn’t stem from the U.S. $20 gold coin minted from 1849 to 1933. The introduction of albatross as a golf term might have started in Great Britain, Jerris says, but no one is certain.
The real albatross is a seabird of about seven pounds which comes to land only when nesting. According to The Sibley Guide to Birds, “Their flight is ponderous and steady, with slow turns and endless gliding on stiff wings.”
When Sarazen got to the 15th hole in the fourth round of the 1935 Masters, Craig Wood was finishing the 18th hole and led Sarazen by three shots, the sure winner barring a miracle finish. “Oh, I don’t know”, Sarazen told reporter O.B. Keeler, “they might go in from anywhere.” Using his Wilson 4-wood from 235 yards for his second shot, Sarazen flew over what was then a small stream in front of the green, which wasn’t elevated like it is now. To the delight of less than two dozen spectators around the green, his ball made the putting surface on the second bounce and rolled in the cup. Sarazen tied Wood and defeated him by five strokes in a 36-hole playoff the next day.
Writing in the May 1935 edition of The American Golfer, Grantland Rice called Sarazen’s deuce “the most thrilling single golf shot ever played.” The majesty of the shot grew over the years as the Masters became viewed as one of the four Grand Slam events and the rarity of the albatross was realized.
The next double eagle at the Masters wasn’t made until 1967, when Australian Bruce Devlin sank a hooking 4-wood from 248 yards for a 2 on the par-5 eight hole in the first round. Unlike Sarazen, Devlin didn’t get much of a boost from his deuce. He shot a 74 and went on to finish T-10.
(Devlin’s son, Kel, who played competitively before becoming an executive with Nike Golf, got an albatross of his own at the 1991 Dakota Dunes Open on the Hogan Tour.)
It was another 27 years before the Masters’ next albatross. Maggert was out of contention and in the first pairing to tee off Sunday in 1994. He hit the 13th fairway, then struck a 3-iron from 222 yards. The ball landed on the water-guarded green and trickled into the traditional final-day hole location at the right rear. “There were probably 400 or 500 people around the green.” Maggert remembers, “I was struggling, and it kind of caught me off guard. I was just trying to shoot a good score.”
When Devlin made his 2 in 1967, Augusta National created a crystal bowl to commemorate his double eagle and Sarazen’s (Sarazen had gotten the bridge at No. 15 named in his honor in 1955). Maggert received the same piece, which is inscribed with an eagle, not an albatross, and has a slightly larger base than the crystal Masters competitors receive for a hole-in-one. “It’s like a big salad bowl,” says Maggert, who uses it to store the Titleist with which he made his 2. Seven years later Maggert picked up his second major double eagle by holing a 6-iron on the sixth hole at Latham. “That was kind of a shocker too,” he says. The wind was with me, and it was kind of a blind shot. I couldn’t see the green or the pin. I just hit it and started walking.” Although British Open records are sketchy, it is known that Johnny Miller made a deuce on the 558-yard fifth hole at Muirfield in 1972; Bill Rogers holed his second shot on the par-5 17th at Royal Birkdale in 1983 and Greg Owen had a 2 on Royal Lytham’s par-5 11th hole in 2001.
T.C. Chen is remembered for losing the 1985 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills GC near Detroit because of his double-hit chip during the final round, but earlier that week, teeing off in the first round, the 27-year-old Taiwanese recorded the first double eagle in the championship’s history. Playing the 527-yard, par-5 second hole, Chen used a 3-wood from 256 yards. His ball landed on the green and rolled 55 feet into the cup. He took the lead with a first-round 65 and didn’t lose until his infamous wedge on the sixth hole Sunday, when his club got caught in heavy grass and struck the ball a second time at thigh level. Chen went on to lose the Open to Andy North, ensuring notoriety for the error, not the albatross. “I did not know the ball was in the hole until I get to the green,” he said of his master stroke, “and a man on the scoreboard there told me.” The man, one of only some 20 people around the green, was named Ralph Eagle.
When it comes to albatrosses, things can get a little eerie. There have been 24 on the LPGA Tour since Marilynn Smith made a double eagle during the Lady Carling Open in 1971. Sherri Turner and Dawn Coe-Jones are the only women with two, and Turner made hers on the same hole five years apart. In 1993 at Atlanta Women’s championship in Stockbridge, Ga., with her father, Paul, among the gallery on the par-5 18th, Turner had 199 yards to the uphill green and took out a fairway wood. “I had a slight lie,” Turner recalls, “I kind of gripped down on it. As soon as I hit it, I knew it was going to be good because it was dead on line with the pin.” In 1998 Turner was struggling mightily in the first round of what was now called the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship. “I was so frustrated walking from the 17th green to the 18th tee,” says Turner, who needed a par to shoot 82. “I was having a conversation with my caddie about how I needed to take some time off from golf.” A few moments later, from a position not far from where she made her previous deuce, Turner swung away with a 4-wood. “It was pretty much the same shot,” she says. “The pin was back. It was kind of blind. I could tell by a few whistles that the ball had gone in. I turned to my caddie and said, ‘Just about the time you want to give up, something like that happens.’”
Turner left Eagle’s Landing CC with a smile on her face.
The PGA Championship waited even longer than the U.S. Open for a double eagle. It occurred in 1993 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. Darrell Kestner, a 39-year-old club professional at Deepdale GC in Manhasset, N.Y., was being watched by his wife, Margie, who had a video camera and had been asked by the PGA Tour of America to record some footage of her husband. Through nine holes Margie taped every shot Darrell hit, but he was concerned the battery would die and told her to pick her spots.
Kestner, who didn’t start his first round until 3 o’clock, hit a perfect drive on the 515-yard 13th hole, leaving himself with 222 yards to the hole. “It was about 6:20,” Kestner says. “They were lowering the crane behind the green, so I knew television was off the air for the day. There were about 10 people in the stands around the green.” They saw Kestner’s 5-wood shot go pretty-as-a-picture into the cup, except there was no picture. “Walking off the green,” recalls Kestner, “I said to Margie, ‘You got that shot, right? I know you filmed that.’ I knew she hadn’t. She’s been teased about that for years.”
But like any good tale, double eagles can reverberate like echoes in a cave whether or not they were caught on film. The late Dave Lapham was a 21-time club champion at CC of New Canaan (Conn.), a stylish golfer who looked as if his hands were born to grip a golf club. More than his many titles or his tidy game, Lapham’s legacy was for the 4-wood he once holed from the right rough on the dogleg, par-5 16th hole. Some 50 years later, when a golfer goes in the same spot he is said to be playing from “Lapham’s Corner”.
Manuel Land, a 74-year-old retired auto-parts salesman from Pleasanton, Texas, was in the pro shop at Pecan Valley GC in San Antonio a few months ago, ready to pay his green fee when one of the pros told the other, “This is the guy in the [newspaper] article on the wall.” The pro comped Land’s golf, all because of what happened to Land on May 21, 1982, as he played Pecan Valley’s 525-yard par-5 finishing hole with Louie Smith, Tom Adams and Roy Halpin. Smith, who ran a club repair business, was the first to play his second shot to the elevated green about 225 years away. He hit a 3-wood. Land selected a 4-wood. Both men hit solid shots but assumed they would have chips for their third shots. “I was going around the back of the green to see where our balls were,” Land says, “and Tom said, ‘they’re both in the hole!’” The double eagles by two golfers in the same group was a first, and is catalogued at Golf Digest, which became the clearinghouse for holes-in-one in 1952 (readers get a certificate for properly attested aces and albatrosses).
The late Tommy Moore, who was in the record books as the youngest (age 6) to make a hole-in-one, also made a double eagle when he was 13. The longest hole ever double-eagled was the 647-yard second at the U.S. Naval base course on Guam by Chief Petty Officer Kevin Murray in 1982. “Contrary to all misbelieve, the hole in not a dogleg,” Murray wrote Golf Digest in defense of his deuce, providing a hand-drawn diagram of the hole. “It is straight away with a lot of roll. The day that we played was a very windy day. A typhoon had just passed us and we were receiving winds up to 40 mph.” Playing a 4-iron from about 250 yards, Murray saw his ball scamper along the hard ground and go in. “It makes all the years I’ve played pay off,” he said.
Sometimes a double eagle leads to good things, sometimes not. In the 1972 Crosby, Bob Murphy knocked a 3-wood into the cup for a deuce on the par-5 second hole at Pebble Beach GL. “I started bogey, double eagle, birdied, birdied, birdied, birdied, birdied,” he remembers. “I finished second in the tournament.”
Lance Ten Broeck got on the wrong side of momentum at the 1994 South Carolina Classic in Florence, S.C. Ten Broeck birdied the first hole, then sank a 4-wood for a double eagle on the par-5 second. “I was four under par after two holes”, says Ten Broeck. “I was a bit flustered. It was all downhill from there. I didn’t break par.”
Nobody has fought more golf demons than Chip Beck, whose fortunes seemed to shift soon after he played conservatively on the 15th hole of the Masters, laying up short of the water in his second shot. Beck was selling insurance and playing part time in 2003. On Aug. 18, he was in Omaha competing in the Omaha Classic. When Beck got to the 315-yard ninth hole at the Champions club that day, it was safe to assume his mind wasn’t on Robert Mitera, whose hole-in-one at the 447-yard 10th hole Omaha’s Miracle Hills GC on Oct. 7, 1965 remains the longest ever recorded on a straightaway par-4. Beck took a driver, let it fly and watched his tee shot land 30 yards short of the green and roll into the cup, the first par-4 ace on the Nationwide Tour.
Steve Lowery’s double eagle 2 on the 17th hole of the final round at the 2002 International at Castle Pines GC was part of an incredible finish that still came up short of winner Rich Beem. Before holing his 204-yard 6-iron on the penultimate hole, Lowery pitched in a birdied out of a water hazard on the No. 14 and holed a wedge for eagle on the No. 15. Lowery’s albatross was the most talked about since Bob Gilder holed a 251-yard 3-wood on the 18th hole at Westchester CC in the third round of the 1982 Westchester Classic.
Although his ball was covering the flag, Gilder wasn’t sure of the outcome even after the gallery spoke. “They went kind of nuts,” he says. “I couldn’t tell if it was in or just real close.” He found out for sure when the golfers in the group in front of him came out of the scoring tent signaling surrender.
“I got out and put a towel on the end of my putter and waved it,” says Mark Lye. “I saw the ball go in the hole.” CBS viewers saw it take three bounces and disappear, too, but slightly after the fact. The network was on a commercial break when Gilder worked his magic. Gilder’s historic shot allowed him to tie the PGA Tour’s 54-hole scoring mark of 192 and take a six-stroke lead into the final round. Like Jack Nicklaus, who sank an 8-iron on the par-5 12th on the Cochise course at Desert Mountain GC en route to winning the 1996 Tradition, his last Champions Tour victory, Gilder prevailed the next day. “I have the ball, but I haven’t seen it in a while. I think it’s in a safe,” says Gilder, who believed he had struck his shot a hair thin.
“Yes, it’s a greater achievement than a hole-n-one,” says Gary Player, who has made five albatrosses, including one in a British Open qualifier, “but a hole-in-one is a more charismatic shot.” Double eagles have been scored with drivers, fairway woods, long irons, middle irons and wedges.
Andrew Magee recorded the first par-4 ace in the PGA Tour history when his tee shot on the 333-yard 17th hole at the TPC of Scottsdale deflected off Tom Byrum’s putter and rolled eight feet into the cup. “Tom Byrum’s caddie said it was the only putt he made all day,” Magee says.
In the case of long drivers Brian Pavlet and Vince Howell, they only needed their own putters to make double eagle. Playing a charity event at Mallard Cove GC in Lake Charles, La., in 2000, Pavlet took the fool’s line off the tee on the 525-yard 18th hole. “The wind was helping, and if you take it up over these trees that are about 25 feet off the tee and about 30 feet tall, it plays about 390,” Pavlet says. “I went and ripped one.” Pavlet’s ball landed to the right of the green, bounced on and finished 15 feet from the hole.
“It broke a good three feet,” he says. “I think the putt was the best part.”
Howell didn’t have much work left two months ago after smashing a driver and a 325-yard 3-wood off a down slope to 13 inches from the flagstick on the 673-yard, par-6 18th hole at Lake Chabot GC in Oakland, Calif. “That was what made the shot so incredible, hitting it that far off such a steep slope,” Howell says. “It was the best shot I’ve ever hit.”
As Howell marveled over the glory of his second shot, he wondered what might have been. “We were trying to figure what it would be called [if it had gone in], because we didn’t know.” “I would call it luck,” says USGA’s Jerris. Howell was treading on the final frontier of exotic golf deeds, four under par on a hole. “I always thought the best possible shot in golf would be a hole-in-one on a par five, perhaps on a horseshoe-shaped hole where one could hit over some trees and find the green,” former British Open champion Roberto De Vicenzo writes in My Greatest Shot, a new book in which dozens of notable golfers describe their best shots (only a few, by the way, are double eagles). “Now that I’m getting older and hitting shorter, I’m forced to admit that such a feat has escaped me. Perhaps one of today’s strong young pros will accomplish it one day.”
The feat actually has been done. On Nov. 15, 1962, Larry Bruce took his driver over a stand of scrawny pines on the 480-yard dogleg right par-5 fifth hole at Hope (Ark.) CC and was a local legend until he died in 2001. And on July 25, 1995, at Teign Valley GC in Christow, England, it happened again.
A 33-year-old Irishman named Shaun Lynch, who battled a slice but was able to draw a high 3-iron over a 20-foot hedge and down a slope on the 496-yard dogleg 17th, had no idea where his ball headed. “It must have bounced on the hard ground and run and run,” he said. “I can whack the ball a long way and obviously hit this one just right.” Lynch shot an 88, bought drinks for all and was awarded an honorary membership at Teign Valley. “I’m afraid we’ve since lost touch with him,” club employee Ina Atkinson said on the phone recently when asked about Lynch’s whereabouts.
But as with Gilder at Winchester and Magee at Scottsdale, Lynch’s odds-bending blow is remembered with a plaque at the scene of the dream: “From this tee Shaun Lynch smote a golf ball into the hole. It was witnessed by two members and certified by Guinness Book of Records.” Until someone comes up with a better bird call, consider it a double albatross. And lots of luck spotting one.