April 20, 2008

What We Learned From The Worst Avid Golfers

A week after this year's U.S. Open, GOLF DIGEST held its own national championship at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in Florida. To paraphrase the U.S. Golf Association credo, we were not trying to humiliate the worst avid golfers. We were trying to identify them. And we certainly did.

The idea for the contest originated in the men's grill at Winged Foot last year, as the course was being prepared diabolically for the 1984 U.S. Open. "It's unbelievable how good the pros are," one editor said to another. "What would an average guy shoot on a course prepared for the U.S. Open if he had to hole everything out What would the really bad golfer shoot Now, add to this hypothesis the pressure of playing in a national championship -- the tv cameras, the press, the galleries, the rules officials -- and there's no telling what that "really bad golfer" would shoot...Until now.

We published a short item in The Digest section last November soliciting nominations for "America's Worst Avid Golfer." Dean Knuth of the USGA helped us draw up the criteria: "He must be a man (we first want to identify 'him'), with no physical handicaps, who is old enough to qualify for the Mid-Amateur (25), but not old enough for the Senior Amateur (55). He must have an established USGA handicap of at least 36 (the maximum for men) and play more than 21 rounds a year (the national average) or once a week in season. And he 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."

More than 600 nominations poured in over the next few months, and the largest manhunt in GOLF DIGEST history began. Editorial Assistant Bitsy Farnsworth double-checked the nominees' credentials, reducing the field to 50. "Having an established USGA handicap eliminated most," she said. Then Farnsworth interviewed the remaining nominees, their club pros and fellow players. This reduced the list to 12 strong candidates -- "the dirty dozen."

Enter Associate Editor Bob Carney, who is the director of the project. He flew around the country playing with the semifinalists. At long last, a final four were chosen. PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman offered the TPC as a venue, prepared as it was for the final round of the Tournament Players Championship.

And the games began...

Reporting on the action was Contributing Editor__Peter Andrews__, who's uniquely qualified for the assignment. Andrews is also a contributing editor of American Heritage, a book critic for The New York Times and a 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 1961," he says. "It was a worst-avid kind of war -- neither side knew what it was doing."

The search for America's Worst Avid Golfer probably commanded more international attention than the Sino-Indian border war. Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated, USA Today, the wire services and 14 television camera crews swarmed to cover the final round, lending the heavy air of a major championship to the proceedings.

Now that it's over, you ask, what did we learn from the Worst Avid Golfers

First, that you don't have to be good to enjoy playing golf. As one contestant observed, "I hope a lot of people take up the game after seeing how much fun we have, even though we're lousy." As one fan noted: "I feel a little better about my own shots now."

Second, that Worst Avid Golfers make the same mistakes we do, only their mistakes are more exaggerated. "They each had bad grips, posture and alignment inconsistencies, and excessive tension in their bodies during play," says Golf Digest Schools Director Andy Nusbaum, who served as a "counter" during the competition and analyzed the worst WAG's swing. "I think one of the reasons Kelly Ireland won is that he had the best grip, which enabled him to hit the greatest number of solid shots," Nusbaum says. "He had to make fewer compensations during the swing."

And third, that even when you play poorly, you still can act like a gentleman. Not once in the 18 holes did any one of the finalists get angry or slam a club or swear.

Come to think of it, maybe that's why they're so damn bad.