Years from now they will still be talking about the 66 that Angelo Spagnolo shot on the 17th hole of the Tournament Players Club at Ponte Vedra, Fla. last Wednesday. Spagnolo, the manager of a grocery store in suburban Pittsburgh, brought up the rear—no mean feat that—in the 18-hole Worst Avid Golfer tournament, which was sponsored by Golf Digest and, incredibly, sanctioned by the PGA, a group not generally known for its sense of humor.
Spagnolo, 31, may not be this nation's worst avid golfer—but, then again, he may be. An unbelievable 627 players were nominated for the tournament, and Spagnolo was one of four men invited to the competition. And after his 18-hole round of 257, no one doubted that he deserved the tacky, green-checked sports jacket that was presented to him. In the seven-hour round that seemed more akin to a death march than a golf match, the new patron saint of duffers knocked 27 balls into the drink at the 132-yard 17th hole, famed for its island green, before he bowed to pressure and took a circuitous route and putted up the cart path, onto the green and into immortality.
"I didn't want to do that because, darn it, the hole wasn't designed to be played that way," said Spagnolo, the un-champ, ignoring the obvious fact that the game of golf wasn't designed to be played the way he plays it, either. But what the heck.
And just to confirm that the 66 was no fluke, Spagnolo finished up with a 22 on the par-4 18th to complete his 99-158—257 for the 18 holes that matched the PGA 72-hole record set by Mike Souchak at the Texas Open in 1955.
The second-worst golfer, at 208, was Jack Pulford, 48, a paragon of consistency who shot twin 104s and hit everything farther right than Jesse Helms. That was odd because until two weeks ago Pulford, a restaurant owner in Moline, Ill., couldn't do anything but duck-hook. In the spirit of magnanimity that epitomizes this ancient game, Pulford invited to the event his ex-wife, Karen, who said, "I just wanted to see him suffer." Considering that Pulford scored in double figures on 11 holes, she must have been pleased.
There was a keen battle for best of the worst, and it was won by Kelly Ireland, 42, an attorney from Tyler, Texas, who, in his own words, "is as good at huntin' 'em as hittin' 'em." With a dramatic sense, Ireland knocked in a 20-foot putt for a double-bogey 6 at 18 to finish at 89-90—179. That put him 13 strokes ahead of Joel Mosser, 45, a stockbroker from Aurora, Colo.
An important point: None of the four was sandbagging. They are that bad and, playing on a course like the TPC, bad golfers will be worse. Several axioms were proved but none more conclusively than this: If you can't get a wedge in the air, then there's no way you can play the 17th hole except by using "Angelo's Alley," as PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman promises the cart path on 17 will be called. How long could Spagnolo have stayed there, across the lake, forlornly consigning balls to a watery grave? Days? Weeks? Let's talk optimism. The night before the tournament Ange had dreamed that he got on the green in one. Now, why someone who has played golf regularly for two years cannot get a ball airborne with a wedge is a question for some golf Ph.D.
For those in the gallery who enjoy public executions, the 15th was undeniably the day's highlight. Spagnolo did his damage in the woods, at one point hitting an iron that ricocheted off a tree and into a golf cart where PGA Tour rules official Mike Crosthwaite was sitting. Crosthwaite was vainly trying for a moment's respite in an afternoon when he made more rulings than the Warren Court—there were, after all, 124 penalties and 102 balls hit into various water hazards.
Besides being unredeemably horrible, the final four consisted of men who passionately love the game and find a silver lining in every skulled nine-iron. These guys aren't casual golfers. Each plays at least once or twice a week, and Pulford, bless his hacker's heart, has been terrifying small animals on courses since 1975.
Pulford's tanned face, trim body, spiffy equipment and warmup exercises belie the fact that he can't play a lick. "You know, I'd go right out and play another round," he said after the tournament had mercifully concluded. "In fact, I wish they would've made this a two-day event." He leaned forward conspiratorially. "I know tomorrow I could beat the hell out of these guys."
Staying in trouble came naturally to Spagnolo, but after submerging 27 balls at the 17th hole, he finally putted up the path.
Spagnolo's soldiers watched his score take off. The jacket was a fitting end to an unmasterful day.