Each year, the PGA tour descends on TPC at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, FL, for The Players Championship. For me, it's an annual reminder of the summer of 1985, when at the tender age of seven, I watched my father, Angelo, "win" Golf Digest's title of America's Worst Avid Golfer. Given that this year's TPC tournament started today, I thought it would be a good occasion to share the story of how this happened.
The rules were as follows: you had to be nominated by someone other than yourself, you had to be in a golf league, and you had to have a verifiable handicap (in his case, an illegal 52). You also had to include a dubious accomplishment of yours on the golf course (my father's was three whiffs on one hole).
Of the 627 nominees the magazine received, the field continued to be narrowed and narrowed, and he continued to make the cut. It was like the bad golf version of American Idol. When the original 627 was cut to 12, Golf Digest sent an editor out to play with each of the 12 hackers. Of the 12, four would be chosen to play for the title at the TPC.
Sure enough, my father made the final four, joining a stockbroker from Colorado, an attorney from Texas, and a bar owner from Illinois. So we packed our bags and headed to Ponte Vedra. For my dad, life would never be the same.
As the Florida heat and a massive crowd of curious onlookers played mind games with the golfers, the wheels officially came off for my dad on the 17th "island" hole.
The 17th hole at TPC is one of the most famous in all of golf. And my dad still managed to make a name for himself. He put 27 in a row into the drink, eventually forced by tournament organizers to putt up the cartpath, later given the nickname, "Angelo's Alley" by PGA Commissioner Deane Beman on that fateful day.
He took a 66 on the hole, and a 257 for the round, "winning" by 48 strokes. The inevitable media onslaught was immediate, as he was on the Today show with Bryant Gumbel the next day. Since then, he's been the subject of a Nike commercial with Curtis Strange and Peter Jacobsen, appeared on TV with Steve Allen, Bob Uecker, and Jim Valvano, among others, and hosted his own charity tournament, the Worst Avid Golfer's Tournament, for the past 20 years, raising nearly $1 million for Multiple Sclerosis in the process.
People always look at the 66 and the 257 with skepticism. "Was he trying to be that bad?" is usually the first question asked. Of course he wasn't trying to be that bad. He was that bad. And then when you consider the six-plus hours in the Florida June heat, the pro tees, the throng of onlookers and media, and the mental stress of the course itself, the scores shouldn't really surprise anyone. All of these guys were world-class bad.
As recently as a few years ago, Dateline NBC found a swing guru with a wildly different style swing that turns the left hand backwards and places it in front of the right hand. Dateline figured, "what better way to see if this guy's method works?", and sent my dad to his golf school. Eventually, they returned to the scene of the crime, TPC, and my father shot a 157, slicing 100 strokes from his game. So yes, I guess you could say it worked. But on the rare occasion when he hits the links these days, I can vouch that he's just as bad as ever.
So when you see Tiger or Phil line up at the 17th on Sunday, scoring a 2 or 3 and effortlessly walking across the alley, you can envision the golf heresy that occurred there 22 years ago. And you can wow your friends with some obscure Pittsburgh trivia in the process.