June 20, 2024
Phil Mickelson

Last fall an 11-year-old named Holden Bautista made two holes-in-one in a single round, and, even better, Tiger Woods was an eyewitness. The kid asked Tiger if he had ever made double aces—“I mean you’re the GOAT, so it would be expected?”

“You had to go there,” replied Tiger, laughing. “I’ll give you that one.”
There is no real equivalent to a hole-in-one in other sports. It’s the perfect combination of skill and good fortune with an emphasis on the latter. The closest is a “perfect game” in bowling, but I would argue rolling a 300 requires much more aptitude than luck. The same for pitching a perfect game in baseball. Even with an imperfect swing, every golfer can make an ace.

I read recently in the LIV media guide that Phil Mickelson claims to have made 47 holes-in-one. I believe him, but by the time I finished typing the previous sentence, he might have made a few more. It reminded me of a story in the 1980s when a woman in the Midwest started making holes-in-one at an incredible clip. Since our founding in 1950, Golf Digest has been the official record keeper of the game, so she reported the aces to our senior editor John P. May, who believed in taking people at their word. She made four or five in January and February. The local newspaper took notice when she rolled in Nos. 6, 7 and 8 in March and April. By the time I was dispatched to interview her in June, she had pushed through 9, 10, 11 and 12. This was now a record for most holes-in-one in a year. I couldn’t get down to see her fast enough before she recorded a 13th and 14th.

The trouble with aces is that they are difficult to verify. Like Mr. May, we are inclined to believe you, but records, especially all-time records, require a witness. Ideally, the acer’s playing companions see the ball struck, fly through the air, land on the green and go into the hole. Often, though, blind greens, failing eyesight or a dearth of witnesses make verification hard to corroborate.

There’s the legendary story about a club pro’s daughter who made a hole-in-one while playing early one morning. When she told her father, he naturally asked who she was playing with. When her reply was that she had played alone, he said a hole-in-one required a witness to be official, much to her disappointment. Shortly after, a letter came to the club written by a passenger who had been onboard a train that runs alongside the course. The gentleman wrote that he had witnessed a girl hole her tee shot on a par 3 from the window of his train passing by, and he wanted to congratulate her. The old pro immediately phoned his daughter. “Congratulations,” he said, “you’ve now made your hole-in-one.”

I’m not going to ask our fact-checker to verify Mickelson’s 47 or the club pro’s tale, but for all-time records, we did attempt to find witnesses for the woman who was dunking them by the dozen. It seemed that her attestors, one by one, recounted not exactly seeing the ball go in, but it went in the direction of the flag, or maybe the green, and when they looked for it, lo and behold, the woman found her ball in the bottom of the hole.

I knew Art Wall, who won 14 tournaments on the PGA Tour, including the 1959 Masters, but was more infamous for having made 45 holes-in-one. The number stretched credulity. He was frequently questioned and became a source of golf humor to the point that he wouldn’t talk about it. After all, Byron Nelson had made only eight holes-in-one in his Brobdingnagian career, Gene Sarazen seven, Bobby Jones two, Patty Berg one, and the Ironman himself, Ben Hogan, only four. (“I might have made more if I’d shot at the flag more often,” Hogan said. “Usually, I aim to portions of the green that gave me the best putt.”)

Golf Digest calculates the odds of an amateur like you or me making a hole-in-one at 12,500-to-1. The odds of a tour pro are 3,000-to-1. The PGA Tour has logged 1,263 holes-in-one by 653 different players in stroke-play events since it began keeping records in 1983. In tour competition, Hal Sutton and Robert Allenby hold the record with 10. (Mickelson has made five.) Hogan once had a dream that he made 17 straight holes-in-one and lipped another one out on the 18th hole. In 1994, North Korea’s Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, was reported in his first round of golf to have shot 38 under par, including 11 holes-in-one, and it was witnessed by his 17 bodyguards.

The amateur career record used to be 59, held by Norman Manley, but there was an uncertainty about his number because he lacked witnesses. The current “king of aces” is recognized as Texas pro Mancil Davis with 51. Arnold Palmer’s amanuensis, Doc Giffin, says the real king had about 20. Tiger Woods says he has also made 20. Jack Nicklaus has made 21—“three shy of the number of my grandkids,” he says.

The greatest shotmaker I ever saw was Lee Trevino, and he didn’t have an answer when the question was put to him recently. “A hole-in-one doesn’t excite me,” he said, “because that’s what the hell I’m aiming at. To tell you the truth, I haven’t a clue how many I’ve made. At Hardy Greenwood’s driving range in Dallas [before going on tour], I made dozens. The lights would stay on until the last group came in, when I’d turn them off, and we’d gamble past midnight. I made quite a few in the dark. Hell, I might have made some with a Dr Pepper bottle.”

There is a quirkiness to making aces. According to Golf Digest records, the oldest man to make an ace was Gus Andreone, 103; the oldest woman was Elsie McLean, 102. The youngest boy was Christian Carpenter, 4 years, 195 days; the youngest girl, Soona Lee-Tolley, 5 years, 103 days.

One of the most contentious records we attested was the longest ace on a straight-away hole at 447 yards in 1965 by Robert Mitera at the aptly named Miracle Hill Golf Course in Omaha. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Shaun Lynch for a longer ace at a 496-yard hole in England, but it was a dogleg. Fed up with the debate over whether he did or didn’t, Mitera became a virtual recluse until he was tracked down in 2001 by our architecture editor, Ron Whitten, who reported: “Golf Digest continues to list Mitera’s shot as the world’s longest hole-in-one, period. No qualifier. No asterisk. Having talked to two eyewitnesses, I’m still convinced he made it.”

Looking for that same conviction, I flew into town and went to dinner with the woman who made all the aces. Her husband and the club pro and his wife were with us. It was a very pleasant evening. Just before dessert, I excused myself. The pro said he would join me. As we walked to the restroom, he leaned over and said in a stage whisper, “You know, nobody here believes her.” Not another word was exchanged. We finished our ice cream, the record disappeared, and we didn’t hear from her again.

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