Enjoying the Struggle
We Found the Worst Avid Golfer!
Editor’s note: In celebration of Golf Digest’s 70th anniversary in 2020, we revisited some of the best literature we’ve ever published. Each entry included an introduction that celebrates the author or puts in context the story. Catch up on other installments.
The idea for the Search for America’s Worst Avid Golfer originated in the grillroom at Winged Foot in 1984 when a couple of editors were discussing how the average golfer would play the West Course as it had been prepared for that year’s U.S. Open. After a couple of beers, it turned to this question: “What would a really bad golfer shoot?”
As the concept rattled around our hallways back at the Golf Digest office, it grew bigger. We didn’t want just any golfer; we wanted somebody who legitimately was trying his best. Dean Knuth, who helped develop the USGA Slope handicap system, helped us draw up the criteria: “No physical handicaps, old enough to qualify for the Mid-Amateur (25), but not old enough for the Senior Amateur (55). Must have an established USGA handicap of at least 36 [the maximum for men at the time] and play more than 21 rounds a year [the national average] or once a week in season. And must be a confirmed golf nut who loves the game despite his inadequacies, confident in the knowledge that one day he will find the secret to put his game on track.”
We put a small notice in the front of the magazine, and more than 600 nominations poured in, from wives, girlfriends and buddies. Fact-checking followed; handicap and rounds-played requirements narrowed the field; interviews of each candidate were done by phone, and a final “Dirty Dozen” were identified. Then-Senior Editor Bob Carney flew around the country, met with each and played a round of golf to test their skill and seriousness. A final four were chosen by the editors—no digital voting, as this was pre-Internet days—and invited to a competition at the TPC Sawgrass, site of the Players Championship, provided by PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman, who also offered to be the rules official for the match.
On the appointed day, the week after the 1985 U.S. Open, the Worst Avid Golfer Championship became a national media event—it was covered by Time and Newsweek, and the results appeared on the evening news of the three TV networks at the time. Golf Digest pulled out our top gun, Peter Andrews, who reported on every shot. Andrews was also a contributing editor of American Heritage, a book critic for The New York Times and reviewer of classical music for Esquire. In earlier lives he was a child actor (“If you see a bad Korean War movie, I was probably in it”), a senior editor for Playboy and an international correspondent for Hearst. “I covered the Sino-Indian border war of ‘61,” he says. “It was a worst-avid kind of war—neither side knew what it was doing.”
Peter’s reporting appeared in the September 1985 issue, and many good things followed. The four worst-avid golfers became great friends, played in many charity events together, went to a Golf Digest School for lessons, and got slightly better, but forevermore remained true to their titles. On the 10th and 25th anniversaries of the championship, Golf Digest considered doing it again, but wisdom prevailed. This extraordinary event will never be duplicated. —Jerry Tarde
*Arms and the man I sing, who forced by fate,
To play golf all day and come home late.
Sliced and hooked along the Atlantic shore,
Long labors both by trap and green he bore.
To win the greenish coat, a sixty-six he made
On just one hole; and his caddie was sore afraid.
(With profound apologies to Publius Vergilius Maro, who never saw anything like it in his life.)
Well, that was some kind of shootout deserving of a bit of epic verse. And if Virgil is spinning softly in his grave, you can imagine what the troubled spirit of Harry Vardon is doing along about now. Golf Digest’s search for America's Worst Avid Golfer finally came to an end on the treacherous confines of the Tournament Players Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, and when the final stroke was tallied the name of Angelo Spagnolo led all the rest. In a tight match that could have gone a number of ways right up until the 17th hole, Angelo pulled himself together and squeaked past his nearest opponent by 49 shots. It was the kind of garrison finish of which sports legends are made.
It wasn't easy. The extent of Angelo's prowess was tested to the full by three fine challengers. Out of some 627 nominations, the final four shook down to Jack Pulford, a restaurant owner from Moline, I.L.; Joel Mosser, a stock broker from Aurora, Colo.; Kelly Ireland, an attorney from Tyler, Tex., and Angelo, a grocery store manager from Fayette City, Pa. Four men from different parts of the country bound by a sense of sportsmanship and an abiding love for the game of golf matched only by their inability to play it. Together, they compiled in one afternoon a set of statistics that are likely to stand for as long as people keep score:
They had a combined score of 836.
They made 17 whiffs, put 102 balls in the water and were assessed 124 penalty strokes.
They hit no greens in regulation, scoring no pars, one bogey, eight double bogeys and 63 “others.”
Angelo took a 66 on the par-3 17th water hole. After that, he admitted, “The wheels came off a little,” and he took a 22 on the 18th for a total of 257.
Angelo's final score equaled the tour-record-low 72-hole score of 257 set by Mike Souchak in 1955.
If Angelo had played in that tournament, he would have missed the second-day cut by the 14th hole of the first day, when he still had 111 shots more to play.
All in all, it was quite a day.
THE PRACTICE ROUND
What had started out as a lark six months before when their friends and partners had first nominated them as possible Worst Avid Golfers (WAGs), turned serious on the afternoon of June 18, 1985. To stimulate actual tournament playing conditions, Golf Digest had arranged for the contestants to play a practice round; after that, they underwent the ritual flogging known as the pre-tournament press conference.
Joel flopped in a chair and began by saying, “I have just had a very difficult day. I shot 146 plus two Xs, and I only have one golf ball left.” Kelly also seemed stunned by the difficulty of TPC. “I’ve never seen anything so hard in my life,” he said. “On the 11th [529-yard par 5)], I used every club in my bag and was hitting 24 before I got on the fairway.”
All four were convinced they would shoot better the next day—in fact, they all shot worse—and all were determined to come in with the lowest score. "If I wanted to become notorious," said Jack Puliford, "I'd sneak past the guards at the White House. I'm here to be the best … [pause] ... of the worst." They all agreed that something around 140 should be good enough to win the next day, and the conference broke up.
Afterward, I chatted with Joel for a while. He is a quiet man, who loves golf the way a wino loves muscatel. He knows it's nothing but trouble for him, but he can't get enough of it. "It isn't always a picnic to play as badly as I do," he said. "But it's the guys I play with who make it fun. All my regular foursome from Colorado have come down here just to cheer me on. Can you imagine that? We have a terrific time. We go away in the winter to some place warm, and then we go to the prettiest part of town, which is always the golf course, and we play. Why shouldn't I love the game?"
Joel had to stick around for a television interview with a local station in Colorado. While he was nervously waiting for the camera to pan in on him, one of his regular foursome slips behind and starts to depants him. The tournament pressure is building.
That evening, our Golf Digest instructional brain trust tried to analyze the contenders' swings:
Angelo gives a new dimension to the word "deliberate." He settles slowly, slowly down in his stance like a nesting chicken, and just as the egg is about to drop he lashes quickly at the ball, sending his woods arching straight into the air while his irons rarely get more than shoulder high. One pro said, "His grip is too strong, his stance is too closed and his visor is too low."
Kelly, a small man who plays in a cloth cap, looks like Spanky McFarland in an old “Our Gang” comedy. He does not have a bad swing, but he rushes it terribly, as if he were stealing apples from Farmer Brown's orchard and wants to get out of there before he gets caught.
Joel, on the other hand, takes his time. He stares at the ball as if it were the last one in Christendom, and he seems loath to put it in the air lest it disappear, taking the entire game of golf away with it.
Jack's swing, in some ways, is the most puzzling of the four. It looks terrific. His waggle and practice swings are excellent. But just before the moment of impact, it is as if inside his body a spare needle has been inadvertently left behind by an indifferent acupuncturist. Swing turns to spasm, and the ball flies off at an oblique angle.
In case you might think that any of the players were sandbagging it and wanted to come in last, I can assure you they did not. The proof was in the most incontrovertible form imaginable—cash. Each contestant arrived with an entourage, and there was considerable betting between them on low score. The rivalry between Colorado and Texas was particularly keen. There was, as we used to say in gaming circles, "serious money" on who would make the lowest score—$2,500 that I knew about.
It is unlikely that anyone slept late the next morning. As the contestants met for breakfast, the air was still and quiet, broken only by the sound of equipment out on the course traversing the greens, mowing, mowing, mowing.
THE FINAL MATCH
The tournament got under way shortly before noon in front of a good-size crowd, including 14 television camera crews. Each contestant had his vocal cheering section. Angelo's group wore tee shirts proclaiming Angelo's Army, and Kelly was well represented by Texas' We Beat Kelly Ireland Fan Club. Since there hardly is anyone in Tyler who hasn't, the membership roll of the club is large. Joel was supported by the members of his foursome, and Jack arrived on the tee with a group of his friends, including his golf professional from Moline, his mother and his ex-wife, Karen, who told me, "I've come here to watch Jack make a fool of himself, and I know he won't let me down."
Beman had seen to it that the TPC was arranged in its most menacing posture. The tees were as far back as the local alligators who live on the course would permit, and the pin placements were Sunday difficult. The players were split into two pairs with Joel and Angelo leading off, and Kelly and Jack trailed behind. Each pairing had an official scorekeeper and two representatives from the PGA Tour to call the rules. Beman made a graceful speech and bid the games begin.
Angelo was first up and set the tone for the long day's work ahead. He settled in over the ball and let it fly with a long, high drive—a career shot—straight into the water hazard. We could not know it at the time, but that was the high-water mark of excellence for the first hole. Joel's tee shot had a good line but not quite the distance he had hoped for. He came to rest in the sawgrass that frames the tee area. Two shots later, he had made it perhaps 40 yards into the sand and was still 130 yards from the fairway with a smallish finger lake to the right. As Joel lined up his fourth swing, one of his Colorado foursome sidled up to me and whispered, "Water shot coming up. I've seen him hit this shot a thousand times." He proved to be a good forecaster, as Joel pumped his ball into the lake. The Texas crew was back on the first tee watching all this, and when an envoy from Colorado came back to see if they would be willing to talk terms about the side bet, they just laughed.
As Angelo and Joel began to rumble down the first fairway, Jack and Kelly took their turns. Jack showed us the first of his infinite variety of shanks and winged one directly into the woods. Kelly took careful aim and bounced a drive into the grass bleachers to the left of the first tee. He was given a free drop and hit into a ground-under-repair area. He got another drop and hit into another ground-under-repair area and got still another drop. In what was to be one of the many minor records of the day, Kelly had taken three shots, had three free drops and was still just shy of the stands and told the Texans they could go to hell.
The game would take many turns before the afternoon was out, but that established the pace for most of the day. Angelo was up and down finding water like a dowser while Joel and Kelly bootlaced left and right, and Jack dashed through the woods as if in perpetual search for a shaded Port-o-John.
Jack's group, except for Karen, who seemed to be enjoying herself hugely, was disconsolate. Jack's mother, a sweet, white-haired lady, rooted Jack on with quiet urgency. "Be careful, Jack," she whispered. "Oh, don't lift your head, Jack … Oh, s---, Jack."
By the time we got to the turn, two races had developed—one for first place and one for last. Joe had fired a nifty 75 and was leading Kelly by 14 shots. At the other end of the scale, Jack was holding on to last place with a 104, but Angelo was slowly squandering shots.
It's amazing how easily a person can adjust to the role of celebrity these days. As the players came off the front nine, Joel was grabbed by a television crew for a quick interview. Did he think his 14-shot lead could hold up? What was his strategy for the back nine? Joel smiled diffidently and admitted, "The ball has been bouncing my way so far." He allowed how Kelly was a strong player and couldn't be counted out. "I'll just have to keep up the pressure." Joel paused for a moment to sign a few autographs before heading for the 10th tee. Fuzzy Zoeller, who knows a thing or two about being charming, could not have been more gracious. Joel refused to wilt on the back nine. He threw out a drumfire of 8s and 9s and 10s, and by the 15th still held a comfortable eight-shot lead.
Then it happened ...
THE TURNING POINTS
The 15th is a sleepy, 426-yard par 4, but it requires a needle-sharp carry over 150 yards of sand and water to get to the fairway guarded by trees on the left. Joel put his first in the water, then his second, then his third. You know how it is when you've had a terrific front nine and you begin to feel the ground slipping out from under you on the back? It tightens the nerves. Hitting 7, Joel put a ball into the muddy bank. He hit again, but the ball stayed roughly where it was. Then he took a penalty. From there on the libretto gets a little murky, but by the time Joel was hitting 10 he was essentially back at the tee. He finally got his ball on dry grass in 16 and wound up with a 25. "You should have hit it into the trees and bounced it along," hissed one of his foursome. "I was trying to hit it into the trees," Joel hissed back.
The golfer's tragedy. You rely on a duck hook all day, and then just when you need one the most, what you get is a case of the chronic straights. It can happen to anyone.
Coming up behind Joel, Kelly found himself getting the same advice to cut his way through the arboretum. But the battle of San Jacinto was not won by Texans who skulked into the woods, and Kelly wouldn't have it. He went for it and hit a peach, which fell just a shade short in the water. Of course, San Jacinto wasn't won by men who were entirely stupid, either. Kelly then hit into the forest and emerged with a 12 for the hole. A 13-stroke swing! Kelly had the lead and the affair was in hand—if he could only negotiate the 132-yard 17th.
As it turned out, Kelly would have to wait at the 17th tee for almost an hour while Angelo was caught up in his own passion play. All told, there were three whiffs recorded and 27 balls in the water. Unfortunately, a hip-high wedge shot, which is the basic building block of Angelo's short game, is of but limited use in trying to both carry water and stick on a small green. Angelo actually put seven shots on the lawn, but they all skipped over.
It is part of the human condition to live in hope, but as regular golf balls had already given way to the striped range variety, even the fiercest aspiration had to yield to prudence. Sorrowfully, he dropped a ball on the cartpath and began to putt down the road, over the bridge and finally onto the green—where once on the dance floor, he three-putted for a 66. But let me tell you something about Angelo Spagnolo. In enduring perhaps 40 minutes of public humiliation, he did not wince or cry aloud. At no time did a single whispered blasphemy escape his lips. He took a 66 without a curse. Angelo Spagnolo has either the makings of a Christian Saint or has the most limited vocabulary of any man who has ever played golf.
If there is any consolation to scoring 63 over par on a single golf hole, it was supplied by Commissioner Beman. Henceforth, Beman declared, the cartpath of the 17th hole at TPC will be known as Angelo's Alley.
Angelo solidified his hold on last place with a neat 22 on the 18th. Joel carded a 10 and could do nothing except sit in the clubhouse and hold his breath and hope that Kelly could not manage the last two holes in 37 or less.
Kelly steeled himself for the challenge, and with only seven balls in the water and a bounced whiff, he two-putted his way to an 18 on the 17th. Teeing off on the final hole he said, "I have my strategy: Stay out of the water and the sand." Good thinking, and it paid off. Kelly, the only of the four to break 100 on the back nine, got to the 18th green in 5 and then drained a glorious 24-foot putt for a 6, and attained victory as the "best of the worst."
There was the evitable post-tournament press conference and Angelo, who had come so far to take the title of America's Worst Avid Golfer, was asked what he was going to do next. He thought for a moment and then smiled broadly. "Take lessons."
But wait. Like it says in the television commercial ... there's more. Since the tournament, Angelo has become an authentic media figure. He has given out interviews without number and appeared on television more frequently than Claus von Bulow. He is thinking about writing a golf book. And he has secured the services of an attorney to help him negotiate a possible spot for a Miller Lite beer commercial where his chief function would be to make Rodney Dangerfield look good in plus fours. Then there are the personal appearances to make.
And now there is talk of an international match to determine the World's Worst Avid Golfer. Again, the competition is likely to be swift. There are possible challengers from at least three foreign countries: Japan, where they pay 50 grand to join a club and still can't get on the course for two years. How's that for avid? Canada, where they play above the freezing line. Great Britain, where old men who should be home in bed play golf in weather we can't get the Coast Guard to go out in. Challenge enough for any man.
So stay, as you are Angelo. Don't take any lessons. Your country needs you.