Golf's a funny game. You can be rolling along, singing a song, like Angelo Spagnolo was the other day, and you get into a little bit of trouble on a hole late in the round, and, well, I'm sure we've all had days like this when we've shot a 66 on the 17th and finished with a 257.

A slice here. A shank there.

Twenty-seven balls in the water on 17.

It can happen to anyone.

"I can be very streaky," Spagnolo said.

Spagnolo, a 31-year-old grocery store manager from near Pittsburgh, earned the title of "America's Worst Avid Golfer" on Wednesday. His 257 was the worst among the four golfers selected by Golf Digest to play off for the distinction at the gorgeous and brutal TPC course in Ponte Vedra, Fla.

Spagnolo, whose previous worst score was a 163, appeared well on his way to a smooth 190 or so when he reached the wicked 132-yard 17th, where the green virtually is an island. He put his tee shot into the water, then moved up about 50 yards to the drop zone and pulled out his pitching wedge for his second shot.

And third. And fourth. And fifth. (Stop me when we get to 27.)

"I'd have given anything to put a ball on the green," he said.

Seven shots actually hit the green, but wouldn't bite and rolled off.

"Everyone figured it'd take Angelo 10 shots to get on," said Golf Digest's Jim Carney. "But we realized after a certain point, he'd never get on. His shot doesn't have enough loft."

How long was Spagnolo out there on 17?

"Seemed like forever," he said yesterday.

Kelly Ireland of Tyler, Tex., who shot 179 to become the Best of the Worst, said, "I was in the twosome right behind Angelo. He was out there for almost 20 minutes when I arrived at the tee, and I was standing around long enough to get stiff."

Finally, Spagnolo gave up and putted the ball down the cart path.

"Truthfully," Spagnolo said, "I thought those guys were going to let me hit 300 balls if that's what it took. But it was getting dark, and we really had to get moving. Anyway, I'd already lost five dozen balls."

Spagnolo played conservatively on the 18th, a neat 22.

"After the 16th the wheels came off," he sighed.

Given the final scores -- 179, 192, 208, 257 -- the reasonable question to ask is whether these self-confessed avid golfers tried to be terrible.

They say it wasn't deliberate.

Spagnolo and Ireland have taken lessons. They play twice a week. They don't even cheat. "How could I and come back with these scores?" asked Spagnolo. Said Ireland: "I don't want to kid myself. I'd like to know if I'm improving or not. So far, I'm not."

They're just terrible.

The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.

The four of them put 102 balls in water.

None of them hit a green in regulation.

Spagnolo didn't even hit a fairway.

"That's why we were selected -- because we're as bad as we are despite playing as much as we do," said Spagnolo. "The only time I ever took my wife with me on the course, after two holes she said to me, 'You really are bad, aren't you?' "

"But," insisted Ireland, "just because we're terrible didn't mean we didn't want the low score."

Ireland, an attorney who has never scored lower than 126 and invites people to come to Tyler to "hit 'em and hunt 'em," said that friends had sent his name to Golf Digest as a possible competitor.

Spagnolo, who shot his career low of 111 last month, said his participation came as "an outgrowth of this tournament I was involved in last year when I was pitted against a 71-year-old guy who'd only been playing golf for one year. He played cross-handed and carried three clubs in his bag. It was a five-hole match, and there was a lot of money bet on it. I had hundreds of dollars bet on me; there were hundreds bet on the old guy, too. My friends went animal, yelling and screaming on each shot -- I whiffed three times on one hole."

Spagnolo laughed.

"But I came back, nipped him by two strokes on the last hole."

This year, at 72, the old guy probably could beat Spagnolo by 20 strokes.

For the record, neither man has ever had a birdie. Ireland's favorite club, his putter; his least favorite club, his driver. Spagnolo's favorite club, his driver; his least favorite club, his practiced-but-clearly-nowhere-near-perfect pitching wedge that drowned so many balls at 17. "It eats me alive," he said.

They are, as you have undoubtedly gathered, good sports and have delightful senses of humor. Spagnolo used to bowl, but, he said, "My scores were so bad, I took up golf. Now my golf scores are higher than my bowling scores used to be. The only advantage in bowling was I lost less balls." Speaking of losing balls, Ireland used to buy his balls for $10 a dozen, right out of the brandy snifter in the pro shop at his golf club. "Of course, these were the balls that'd been already hit into the water, so really I was just buying my own balls back."

Other than personal satisfaction there probably isn't much reward for being the best of the worst. But as the unquestioned worst of the worst -- with a trophy and a green and white tablecloth- check sport coat to go with it -- Angelo Spagnolo is thinking commercials. As in, roll 'em. He's thinking that he could hold up a golf ball, look into the camera, and say, "I hit this baby more than 200 times, and even I couldn't cut it." If only the ball would float, too.