The feat was so stunning that all Rob Mandell could do was scream.
Mandell, a Eureka native with a bad back, had just sunk a 5-foot putt on the 18th hole to shoot a 12-under-par 60 at Redwood Empire Golf and Country Club, setting a new course record. It is also the lowest score ever recorded in the history of all seven Humboldt County golf courses, where many club and touring pros have played rounds.
"When that putt went in I lifted up my arms and let out a blood-curdling scream, like a Viking," recalls Mandell, 50. His historic feat took place four years ago last week, on Aug. 28, 2011. "I knew I had shot 60 and broke the course record. How was it even possible that I could do that?"
That is an excellent question, says Greg Senestraro, head pro at Fortuna's Redwood Empire Golf Club. What was so extraordinary about Mandell's score was that, at the time, he was averaging shooting seven shots over par, or 79, on Redwood Empire's par-72 layout, which stretches 5,820 yards from the tees Mandell played that day. Golfers enter their scores on a computer after each round and an internationally employed system — called the Golf Handicap and Information Network — electronically calculates their handicap, or scoring average as related to a course's 18-hole par.
So what are the odds of someone, like Mandell, who normally averages scores of seven over par shooting 17 strokes under his handicap?
Mike Mullan, a Redwood Empire golfer and former Miranda Junior High School math teacher, researched it on www.popeofslope.com, the website of Dean Knuth, the former senior director of United States Golf Association Handicap Department. The website only went as far as calculating the odds of a golfer shooting 10 strokes below his or her handicap. Mullan continued the calculation and came up with the chances of someone shooting 17 strokes below his or her average score, using Redwood Empire's course rating, as approximately 3 million to one.
Northern California Golf Association handicap expert Jim Cowan recently wrote an article for the association's magazine on Mandell's feat, dubbing it the "big kahuna of Fortuna." Cowan notes that the better a golfer is, the more unlikely he or she is to generate a breakout score, or one markedly better than his or her average. The United States Golf Association charts the odds of such achievements, Cowan said, but Mandell's achievement was literally "off the charts."
But against these astronomical odds, it happened.
Mandell, a Fortuna resident and construction worker, was playing in a foursome of friends competing in a Sunday morning game of two vs. two. All three of his fellow golfers had been members of the course for at least 25 years and had scored in the 60s there before. The day saw Mandell and his partner, Chuck Schager, pitted against John Henry and Don Nolan II, a player who had won the Redwood Empire club championship three times.
After parring the first hole with a score of 4 and birdieing the par-three second with a 2, Mandell's round started to get interesting on the par-five third hole. Forty yards out after his second shot, he dunked a pitch for an eagle 3, or two under par. Then he chipped in for a birdie 3 on the par-four fourth hole — four under par after four holes.
Mandell asked Nolan, "How do I keep this going?" Nolan, who had shot 64 three times at Redwood Empire, said, "Don't. Just keep hitting shots."
Mandell did that, nabbing birdies on holes six through nine to finish the first half of his round with an eight-under 28: two pars, six birdies and one eagle.
"That's when the panic set in," Mandell says. "I went into the pro shop and told assistant pro Brian Rasmussen, 'I just shot eight under on the front nine. What do I do?' He gave me a dumbfounded look and said, 'Stay aggressive.'"
His partner, Schager, bought him a shot of Jameson in the bar and they moved to the back nine.
Mandell stayed hot, recording a birdie on the par-five 10th hole to make it five in a row.
"It was terrifying, but fun," Mandell recalls. "In the bar I had peeked at the course record, which was 61. But I was just trying to play golf.
"I started visualizing my body in front of me making the swing I wanted to make. That's very hard to do. It was the only time I've played golf that I could do it. I started doing it every hole. It helped me keep my mental state together."
Schager says he didn't talk about his partner's score. "I just kept telling him to think about the next shot. We were still in a match."
Mandell kept his focus, birdieing two of the next seven holes, and parring the rest. He came to the par-four 18th tee at 11 under par. He reached it in two shots leaving a five-foot putt for birdie to set the course record. When he sank it, all four knew what he had accomplished.
His final scorecard of 60 showed 10 birdies, one eagle and seven pars.
"I've played in three U.S. Open qualifiers, but Rob's round was the most phenomenal round I've ever seen," Nolan says. "It was surreal to watch, and all three of us were pulling for him."
Henry, on the losing end of the $20 betting game, says, "I sat back and enjoyed it. [It] was a $20 admission to watch it, and it was worth it."
Senestraro is a Fortuna native who had been a local high school golf star and successful college golfer at Sacramento State University before becoming a club pro.
"I have been a golf professional for 24 years and to me this is more rare than a Professional Golf Association tour player shooting a 59," he says. "It is the single most amazing accomplishment by a weekend golfer that I have ever heard about."
Four years later, the feat is difficult for even Mandell to grasp.
"Achieving something like this for a guy like me, who was a seven handicap, who works construction, whose back is always sore and hands beat up, is not supposed to happen," Mandell says. "It's a memory that is almost like a daydream."
Paul DeMark is the former Director of Communications and Marketing for College of the Redwoods. He plays drums with several local groups, including The Delta Nationals and LaPatina Band. He is a freelance journalist who lives in Eureka and had a version of this article originally published in Northern California Golf Magazine's summer issue.