Do You Believe Her?
2,253,649,101,066,840,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1 are The odds of Jacqueline Gagne making 16 holes-in-one in six months. Sound unbelievable? Our man investigates
Jacqueline Gagne's ball was a Titleist Pro V1, if we believe her. Flying left off the tee, the ball disappeared into the darkness of a palm tree's fronds. It might have stayed up there. Maybe it bounced into the pond where Gagne searched at water's edge. Looking there, searching the tall grass nearby, everyone looking somewhere, she finally said, "I can't find it."
A playing partner, 86-year-old Marcy Hyman, commiserated with her. "These palm trees," she said, "just eat up balls."
Gagne had an idea. She said to a friend, "Miki, you know how weird my holes-in-one have been. Why doesn't someone look in the hole?"
Marcy Hyman called to the caregiver who accompanies her on the golf course. "Elvira, look in the hole."
And cried out.
"It's in the hole!" Elvira said.
If it's true (and it is) that reports of holes-in-one are so easily invented as to be irresistibly tempting -- a Nashville newspaper once listed a recidivist cheat's witnesses as Stevie Wonder, Roy Orbison and Ronnie Milsap -- if holes-in-one are the most abused achievements in golf, then it's time, right here, to say of that Jackie Gagne hole-in-one and all her others -- yes, she claimed a bunch more -- it's time to say:
We are to believe that a Pro V1 disappeared into a Southern California palm tree, fell to earth, ricocheted across a green, made its way into the hole, and nobody saw it until the woman who hit it asked someone to look in the hole.
OK, Julia Roberts married Lyle Lovett, so strange things happen. Happens once where a palm tree kicks you into the hole, OK, you're living right. Happens twice, it's a minor miracle. Can't happen again.
But in 2007, Jackie Gagne insists, it happened for her seven times. Seven times she hit par-3 tee shots that could not be found until someone went to the hole, looked in, and expressed one more version of Elvira excitement.
Unbelievably, those seven strokes of accidental good fortune were not even half of the story that made Gagne a national and international golfing celebrity. Nine more times this year, last in July, she reported holes-in-one.
Those nine gave her 16 holes-in-one in six months, which, as measure of the story's breathtaking nature, is two more holes-in-one than Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson made in their lifetimes, combined.
Quickly, let's account for those 16. To start, subtract three because there's no hard evidence she played at those places. Then drop two more because there's record of only one witness and she would not agree to an interview.
Now we're at 11. On two of those, two witnesses reported Gagne's shots rolling toward the hole, disappearing behind swales, and being found in the cup.
On the remaining nine, I talked to eight witnesses. They agreed on four things: (1) They never saw a Gagne shot hit a green, (2) never saw her ball roll on the green, (3) never saw a ball go in the hole, and (4) someone always found Gagne's ball in the hole.
My long, bizarre and ultimately sorrowful dance with Jacqueline Lucille Gagne began with an e-mail: "What I'd like to do -- everyone's done interviews -- is come out and play a round with you."
"Not a problem," she said.
She's practically a neophyte, new to the game five years ago, and now at age 47 has reported more holes-in-one in six months than most PGA Tour players make in a career. By one count, she did the 16 in 118 rounds this year. That comes to a hole-in-one once every 30 swings on par 3s, a rate of success that causes Dean Knuth, creator of the U.S. Golf Association's Slope Rating System and a Golf Digest contributor, to blurt this assessment: "That's impossible." David Boyum is a math guy with a Harvard Ph.D. and co-author of What the Numbers Say. He puts the odds of Gagne's feat at "1 in 2,253,649,101,066,840, 000,000,000,000,000, 000,000."
Gagne lapped up the attention. Her website, jacquelinegagne.com, carried 39 citations of national and international media outlets reporting on her, including Golf Digest, Golf World, USA Today, The London Times and The Wall Street Journal. She hired a Los Angeles public-relations firm. She planned a book, Turning Up Aces. She posted a Titleist feature bragging that she used the Pro V1 ball on every hole-in-one. She waxed enthusiastically about Cobra clubs (the company sent her a set and a staff bag). She did a testimonial for the Q-Link pendant (over the signature, "Jacqueline Gagne, World Record Holder, Most Hole In Ones in One Year"). She agreed to play in certain events as a national spokesperson for a breast-cancer charity.
Gagne twice appeared on CBS television's "The Early Show." Co-anchor Harry Smith began the first segment saying, "Oh, do I love this story." Later he brought her to New York, where he enlisted golf analyst Peter Kostis. When Gagne revealed that she reads the green from the tee, Kostis declared that "the first clue" to the holes-in-one. Then she made a few swings, and Kostis liked what he saw. His conclusion: "It's the real deal."
The neophyte who reads greens from 150 yards away before deciding where to place her tee shots reported two holes-in-one in January. One in February. March, two. Nine in April and May. June, it was one. July, one.
When, in 1953, a New Zealand 18-handicapper, Eliza Small, reported making nine holes-in-one in three months, including four in successive rounds and two in one day, skeptics believed she had carried extra balls in her skirt pocket -- "or even in her panties," wrote local journalist Jim Valli -- because she invariably was the one who found the ball in the hole.
As inevitable in these things as speculation is, I came across no one who could offer information on how Gagne carried out the hoax, if hoax it be. Her friend Judy Scrafford, never a hole-in-one witness, scoffs at the very suggestion.
"How in the heck," she says, "could somebody drop a ball in the hole and nobody in the group would see it? It would be impossible. It would be a helluva scam if you could pull that off. I suppose it could happen, once maybe. But that many times?"