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Choke hold

SPORTS WRITERS, the honest ones, know envy. When your job is to watch and write about men and women who make the impossible seem routine, it's hard not to wonder what that feels like, to stand under the lights and know that you've won absolutely. There aren't many perfect scores given for words.

I can remember when I felt that envy the strongest. It was in 2007, in a quieter moment than you might expect. I had just signed a book contract to write about the six men who had shot 59, golf's magic number. Three of them (Al Geiberger, Chip Beck and David Duval) had scratched that rare figure on PGA Tour scorecards. The other three (Notah Begay III, Doug Dunakey and Jason Gore) had done it on the Nationwide Tour. They were, on the surface, different men and different golfers, seemingly united only by one of the most elusive records in sports. But they were also linked in a more sinister way: Each man had suffered from a very particular brand of choke, had been broken by golf after he had mastered it. My book was going to be called 59: The Curse of Perfection.

I was talking to Beck, a very kind and decent man. ("He's probably the most positive guy I've ever met," Nick Price once told me. "He could see something good in an earthquake.") Beck's fall had been one of the most calamitous in PGA history, level with those shudder-inducing images of Ian Baker-Finch or, later, Duval's own plummet. In 1997 and 1998, Beck, a four-time winner, missed 46 consecutive cuts in tour events before finally giving up; he went home to Chicago and wound up selling insurance. Now Beck was hoping to make a comeback on the Champions Tour. We were sitting together at a golf course outside Baltimore, where he had been hitting buckets of balls. The sweat ran down his face. He looked tired.

Then Beck began talking about his 59 and his face changed. His dream round had come during the Las Vegas Invitational in 1991. The night before, he'd been practicing with Dick Mast, his friend and fellow pro. They were working on their putting when Mast looked up and said, "This is the kind of course where you could shoot 59 if you got it going." The next day, Beck stared down a three-foot putt for birdie on his final hole. "We just don't know why things turn out the way they do," Mast told me. So many variables, so many moving parts, had fallen exactly into place for Chip Beck. He was always going to sink that putt.

Now here we were in Baltimore, 16 years and thousands of miles removed from that incredible day, and Beck could remember every instant of it. Every one of those 46 missed cuts, all of those years going to work with a briefcase filled with insurance contracts rather than a golf bag, all of it disappeared, and he was basking in the glow of perfection again. "It was just pure grace," he said, and the way he said it made my heart soar and drop at the same time.

I wanted to know what he knew, and I made up my mind that my book about perfection would be my best chance of achieving it. I didn't listen to those six men who knew better, who knew only too well that you can't force that kind of miracle. "It's like enjoying the beauty and the warmth of the sun, but if you stare at it, it will blind you," Begay told me after he'd missed another cut of his own. Piles of paper rose on my desk, but they never took the shape I'd wanted. I wrote and rewrote, gagging a little bit more, a little bit worse, with each desperate stab. I did that for three years until, in the summer of 2010, I thought I'd cracked it, or at least I'd convinced myself that I had. Then Paul Goydos shot 59 at the John Deere Classic. Three weeks later, Stuart Appleby did it at the Greenbrier Classic.

I didn't have the strength to start over. I put my book in a box and that box in my attic, where it still sits, the curse of 59 with none of its grace. I doubt I'll ever finish it, because I've told myself that the day I do, some jackass will shoot 58. But that's just a convenient excuse, a choker's way out. Deep down, I know that as long as that box stays closed, my heart will remain jealous. As long as that box stays closed, I don't stand a chance.

Chris Jones is the backpage columnist for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.