May 19, 2008

The Search For America's Worst Avid Golfer

Can't break 200? Need two dozen balls to play a round? Finally there's a contest for whiffers, hackers, toppers and slicers

The balloting for America's Worst Avid Golfer officially closed April 1, 1985, and while we are still evaluating the more than 500 nominations, we can already report with considerable pride that the reservoir of truly horrific golfing talent in this great land of ours is deeper and more plentiful than we had dared hope for.

We started our search with what we considered to be a set of exacting standards. Nominees had to be men (we first want to identify a man) between the ages of 35 and 55, have no physical handicaps, play a minimum of 21 rounds a year and carry an attested handicap of at least 36. Additionally, we require something of the spirit. No whiners, please. Only men who, despite their demonstrated inadequacies, remain passionately devoted to the game. The two finalists will be invited by GOLF DIGEST to compete in an 18-hole, count-all-the-strokes match at one of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses this summer.

Well, as Joel Schroeder of Alan, P.A., made clear nominating himself, there are people out there who not only meet our requirements, they "shatter" them. Joel, by the way, claims he uses at least a dozen new balls every round, never takes a cart because he hits the ball where no cart can operate, and is the only man in Pennsylvania to have a teaching professional refund his money after one lesson.

An impressive entry, but Joel is up against some of the toughest competition since Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer used to grab each other by the throat trying to win a green Masters jacket, and the final selection is going to be extremely difficult.

You want to talk about intimidating golf statistics? How about Jerry Ryan of Bohemia, N.Y., who claims a working handicap of 76 (36 is the maximum allowed by the U.S. Golf Association)? Shooting one's age is a demanding test of good golf. Jerry is 31 years old and stands 35 strokes short of getting his handicap to match his age. Nor can we treat lightly the entry of Nick Telezyn of Terre Haute, I.N., who once shot a flat 100 over par. Nick did not lose a ball during his travail, but he did lose a club. Then there is George Uhland of Canon City, C.O., who can sometimes get his score down into the low 200s when he's really hot.

And how can we discount the golfing accomplishments of Michael Bush of Belle Chasse, L.A., who last October participated in an event stirringly entitled the Annual Plaquemines Parish Fair and Orange Festival Tournament -- and failed to drive as far as the ladies tee on 14 out of 18 holes. Speaking of big hitters off the tee, there is Jack Weissman of Cherry Hill, N.J., who has been playing golf for six years, owns four full sets of clubs and his longest recorded drive with any one of them is 80 yards. His shortest drive is minus nine yards.

We received several reports of big numbers on a single hole, such as 22 for Stan Lounsbury of Rockport, T.X., who was doing all right on a par 5 until his 13th shot scampered into a concrete rain shelter. Neil Hamlin of Milo, M.E., doesn't remember all of the details of his great hole, but there was some difficulty in getting off the tee, a few lost balls here and there, hitting into the woods, eventually recording a 55 for the hole. But, pending confirmation from the Guinness Book of World Records, the highest score for one hole must be assigned to Ray Walker of Lake City, F.L. Ray was playing at the TPC at Sawgrass (fortunately on a deserted day) with three very patient friends when he came to the dreaded 17th hole, a 132-yard par 3 with an island green. Determined to fly the water and land on the green, Ray was not discouraged when he splashed his first shot. Ray had brought plenty of balls. Ray eventually emptied his own golf bag, his friends' bags, an enormous shag bag they had brought along, plus a score or two of balls purchased along the way and managed to put 327 consecutive balls in the water. This means Ray was hitting 655 when he finally gave up and carded an X.

When it comes to bulldog ineptitude on a single hole over a long period of time, however, perhaps the palm should be extended to Jack Lawyer of Salida, C.O. On Jack's home course, there is a short par 3 that requires a 100-yard carry over a lake to get to the green. According to his nominator, Judge Howard Purdy, Jack has been playing the course regularly for seven years and hasn't cleared the water yet. Do not bother suggesting, by the way, that Jack try a different club. He gave up hitting wooden clubs years ago and has now got his game simplified to the point where he plays with only a 6-iron and a putter.

We all have heard about the phenom who can sometimes put a big number on the board, but how does he hold up under pressure when there is an important match on the line? Not so well. The Rev. David Willoughby of Meriden, M.S., has played in the PGA (Preacher's Golf Association) Championship twice a year for the last six years and has failed to come in dead last only once (when he carded a nervy 126, but was undertaken by a single shot). Neil "Puttable" Hamlin frequently tours 36 holes a day with his wife who, unhappily for Neil, plays to an 11 handicap. The only way Neil can get a match going between the two of them is matching his low 18-hole score against her 36. Neil, who once hit 14 straight tee shots out-of-bounds on the same hole, ususally pays.

Angelo Spagnolo of Fayette City, P.A., is 30 years old, a picture of health and a spiffy dresser, who recently lost 13 balls while cruising to a 161 on his local course and sports an official 56 handicap. Would anyone want to back Angelo for big bucks in a grudge match? The fellow members of his golf league did last summer and pitted Angelo against a 71-year old cross-handed golfer who just had taken up the game two months before and only owned three clubs. To get Angelo ready for the big match -- five holes at stroke play -- his backers ponied up money for a dozen lessons and daily visits to the driving range, where he banged out 300 balls a day for three weeks. The outcome of the match is still a matter of furious contention around Fayette City owing to variant interpretations of the rules on such matters as what exactly constitutes being out of play, always a tricky point. But it is clear that Angelo was razor sharp, stuffing in a smooth 25 over par and on one hole pulling off the golfer's equivalent of the hat trick -- three whiffs.

Angelo might find himself well matched against Chief Warrant Officer Richard Gonzales Jr., currently stationed in Stuttgart, West Germany. CW2 Gonzales took up the game in 1983 and became a hopeless addict by the end of the season. But loving golf is like loving a Las Vegas showgirl. Being devoted doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to get anywhere. Tired of being the camp pigeon, CW2 Gonzales lined up four games with four different people who had never played golf in their lives before, played each of them at scratch and lost all four matches. He was beaten by Master Sergeant Ken Thomas, Captain Herbert Sequera, Sergeant Robert Stage and Mrs. Robert Stage. In an official letter of transmittal bearing no fewer than nine endorsements from Headquarters in Stuttgart, it is recorded that the chief once took 11 shots, hitting the ball each time, to gain four yards.

Do not think for a moment that we are talking casual golfers who do not care about their games. The nominations frequently indicate a degree of dedication to golf that would make Ben Hogan seem like a trifler playing in the Sunday afternoon hit and giggle. Nothing stops Dan Carpenter of Kentwood, M.I., from getting in his daily round. He has been known to play through February on his home course. They don't even make automobiles in Michigan in February. Dan got married last September and was 37 minutes late for the ceremony because the foursome in front wouldn't let him play through. Gene Cockrill of McAllen, T.X., quit bowling to take up golf and finds that his average score in both games is about the same, around 120. Gene took a flock of lessons, but the only thing the pro could suggest was that he wear a glove. The glove didn't help much. On a 145-yard par-3 hole, Gene gloved a 4-iron so far off the course property that the ball drove through the windshield of a pickup truck heading south.

Gordon "Flash" Hambrick, a member of the Pensacola Country Club in Florida, took early retirement so he could have more time to devote to his golf game. Gordon plays every day of the week except Monday, when the course is closed. Gordon practices on Monday. He has 25 pairs of golf shoes and needs every one of them. His friends calculate that Gordon has walked more than 12,000 miles in the last 10 years just looking for lost balls. "His devotion to the game is not without its price," notes his nominator, Hobart Worley. "When you play as mush as he does, the rounds tend to run together. In a recent match, when we were helping Flash look for his drive, he remembered he had forgotten to hit it."

Dennis Yohnka of Kankakee, I.L., who once hit a tee shot into his own golf bag, is a keen student of the game, although he admits the result of his application are some what mixed. In addition to regular lessons, Dennis has had his swing put on videotape and undergone hypnosis. So far, the only improvement he has noticed in his play is that the divots have gotten bigger.

Trying to master a smooth golf swing, as we all know, is sometimes a dodgy enterprise. Winston Snider of Virginia Beach, V.A. cannot decide if he is right or left-handed and hits the ball either way as the fancy takes him. Gil Raposo of San Leandro, C.A., who frequently rents a backup golf cart on his regular round because one vehicle cannot handle the mileage he requires, has spent a lot of time analyzing his game. Although he typically needs a driver and a 5-wood to negotiate a 128-yard par 3 on his home course, Gil feels that his short game needs the most work. He may be right. His nominator, Roger Girvin, reports that earlier this year Gil was chipping with a 9-iron from 30 inches off the green and hit the ball just a shade thin, blading it 140 yards down the next fairway for his longest shot of the day.

Each man who becomes a truly terrible golfer does so in his own way. William Connelly of Glen Ridge, N.J., has a tortuous swing that reminds his partner of "someone trying to get out of a straightjacket," while Marc Platau of McKee City, N.J., uses the same vigorous slap-shot swing he had when he was playing ice hockey in college. But if there is one common character trait shared by all our nominees for America's Worst Avid Golfer it is a relentless perseverance. They do not give up. They keep playing the game. Ed Stead of Greenwhich, C.T., has been playing golf for more than 15 years with a steadfast 36-handicap. Ed plays 35 times a year at his home club, and during the summer he hits the member-guest circuit in New York and New Jersey. When Ed is not playing he practices diligently at home, although he admits that putting on a shag rug does not seem to build that consistent putting touch he strives for. Ed once was asked how it was that after all this time and effort he still carried a 36-handicap. The answer was simple: "I don't turn in all my high scores."