Crunch these numbers: In 1986, Spagnolo fired a 66 on 17

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Angelo Spagnolo will witness the thrills and spills at TPC Sawgrass' 17th hole from the safety of his own home in suburban Pittsburgh this week, beer in hand, telecast on the flat screen, both sons by his side. The fact that he won't be locked in a padded room wearing a straitjacket is a minor miracle.

"I do have a tendency to kind of fixate on what goes on at 17," he says, "after having lived through a near-death experience there."

To understand Spagnolo's brush with a watery grave, we must rewind to 1986, when Golf Digest magazine sponsored a contest to reveal America's Worst Avid Golfer. At the time, Spagnolo was 31 years old, playing at least a few times per week and carrying a handicap of 56. His most recent "competition" was a friendly match against a 71-year-old cross-handed golfer who had taken up the game only two months earlier and owned just three clubs. Although Spagnolo contends he won, the result is still the subject of much debate at his home course.

What he did win was a chance to compete against three others for the right to either be called America's worst or be exonerated in a public forum. And make no mistake, Spagnolo didn't want to be saddled with the title.

"Angelo was clearly the ideal," remembers Bob Carney, a Golf Digest creative director who headed up the competition. "Great guy, absolutely sincere, totally in love with the game, hopelessly bad -- the Charlie Brown of golf."

Playing from the championship tees at Pete Dye's unforgiving TPC Sawgrass course, Spagnolo was ensconced in a bitter battle for worst of the worst with fellow competitor Jack Pulford, at 104 over par through 16 holes.

Then came No. 17.

Often called the most exciting hole in golf, the par-3 17th hole frequently is referred to as having an island green, but it's really a peninsula, with a thin strip of land allowing players access to the putting surface from the left side and water surrounding it from all other directions. To Spagnolo, it was intimidation personified.

"That could have been the English Channel I was trying to hit across," he says. "It was that daunting of a shot. It just looked like a near impossible idea to contemplate."

On his initial tee shot, Spagnolo found the water hazard. He hit another and found the water again. And again. And again. And again.

"It was painful to watch," Carney says. "Funny at first, and then not funny at all. You can't get a hip-high wedge shot to stop on a green like the 17th from 100 yards. Ang hit the green seven times. Those shots had no chance of staying on the green."

His swing simply didn't produce the kind of shot that could soar through the air and land safely on the putting surface. As Peter Andrews wrote in the ensuing Golf Digest article: "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."

"My youngest son got really frustrated," Spagnolo says. "At one point, after hitting a ball in the water, there was dead silence and all we hear is, 'Aww, Dad!' And everybody broke up laughing. It was a needed relief at that point."

Unfortunately for Spagnolo, there was no true relief. Down to course-issued range balls, he continued making splashes even when it was suggested he find an alternate route.

"We sent word to Ang through his caddie that he ought to stop trying to hit the green and putt up the tee to the path and onto the green," Carney says. "His caddie relayed the message and Ang responded by shaking his head firmly. His caddie came back to us and said, 'Ang says no. He says that's not the way the hole was designed to be played.'"

Finally, eventually, exhaustingly, Spagnolo relented, grabbing his putter and whacking the ball down the left side of the hole. Then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, on hand to witness the festivities, dubbed the strip, "Angelo's Alley." It took a total of 63 strokes for Spagnolo to reach the green and three more putts to complete his single-hole score of 66, which led to a final tally of 257, "winning" the title of America's Worst Avid Golfer.

Chances are, at some point during this week's Players Championship, a tournament contender will fall victim to his own Angelo Spagnolo moment, though to a much lesser extent, of course. As with Sean O'Hair in last year's final round, an unseemly swing at an untimely juncture will lead to a precipitous fall from the leaderboard.

Spagnolo, for one, will feel said player's pain from his living room and offer his deepest sympathies.

"Anytime I see that, it just breaks my heart," he says. "I don't get any kind of pleasure from that. If anything, it should underscore the difficulty of that hole."

Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.