Joe Gross is not sure where he is going to be this morning, when the Maryland state high school golf tournament begins at the University of Maryland Golf Course. But he knows where he should be.
"It's not going to be easy, because I should be there to defend my title," said Gross, a three-time All-Met who won the Maryland 4A/3A championship as a freshman in 2001 and as a junior last fall. "That was the whole reason why I wanted to play high school golf this year."
But Gross's golf plans have been derailed by a series of events that began with his father suffering a stroke two days before he won the state tournament last year and was followed by behavior that led to his dismissal from the La Plata High golf team and his eventual departure from the school.
Gross, a three-time All-Met who today could have become the first boys' player in Maryland history to win three individual state championships and was being considered for a golf scholarship, all but quit the sport and is now home-schooled.
Joe Gross Sr. taught his son golf and was his only coach, but since the stroke he has been unable to accompany his son on the course or drive him to faraway tournaments. The son stopped playing junior tournaments and at one point went six months without picking up a club.
"Part of his identity and refuge was taken away," said Mike Meiser, La Plata's golf coach. "He was looking at some places that were scary to him. It concerned me. He looked like a lost puppy looking for a place to fit in."
Said Sharon Gross, Joe's mother: "He wasn't able to cope with it. It put Joseph into a tailspin. My only alternative was to get him home-schooled. It was an ordeal. . . . I really don't know what the future's going to hold for Joseph at this point."
It once held a world of promise.
"Collegiately, he'd be really good," said Bob Baker, president of the Plantations Junior Golf Tour, on which Gross played during winter and spring weekends. "When his name went on the [leader] board, that'd eliminate a lot of kids. They'd just say, 'Oh no, there's Joe.' Kind of like how you look at PGA boards when Tiger's name goes up. You eliminate half the field."
The elder Gross -- who served as president and chief financial officer for Washington Savings Bank before the stroke -- struggled to recover. His speech was seriously affected for three or four months, according to the family. After his speech recovered, he began to struggle with ulcers. Four months after that, doctors found a spot on his right lung, which they believe is scar tissue, but are not certain. They also found a growth on his liver, but his wife said they hope it is just a cyst. Gross Sr. was already taking medication for high blood pressure and depression.
The family's plan to build a new house was put on hold, as was most everything else, as Sharon Gross tended to the homebound father.
Joe Gross Jr. played in only one event this season for La Plata before he was kicked off the team. Gross would leave his cell phone on during school -- in case of an emergency call from home, he said -- and one day last month it rang during class. It was a friend calling, and that broke school rules, earning Gross a one-day suspension.
A couple of weeks later, Gross said he "just wasn't feeling right" and left school early without permission. That earned him another one-day suspension.
Two suspensions in Charles County Public Schools warrant dismissal from a sports team for the current season. "I didn't read the [athletic] handbook closely," Gross said sheepishly.
La Plata Principal Donald Cooke declined to comment on Gross, only saying, "The only thing I can confirm is that he is off the golf team," and acknowledged Gross is no longer taking classes at the school.
As he did last spring, Gross left La Plata to be home-schooled, hoping that will allow him to catch up on his grades and get on track for a spring graduation.
Gross had played in local and out-of-town tournaments three or four weekends each month for the better part of five years, but he has barely played since his father's stroke. Gross said he did not want to go to events by himself and worry about rushing back if his father took a turn for the worse.
Without a high school team, and being a faint memory to many regulars on the junior tour circuit, Gross fell off the recruiting map.
"A lot of people knew who he was," said one college coach who was recruiting Gross, and asked not to be identified to prevent breaking NCAA recruiting rules. "We were following him and then, all of a sudden, he disappeared. People started wondering about him. . . .
"You wonder a couple of things: Did he play another sport? Did he have academic problems? Did he really want to play golf?"
Gross says he is resigned to losing a shot at a scholarship.
"That's a $100,000 scholarship down the drain," Gross said. "I thought about it for a minute and the loss of all that money . . . but it means nothing when the life of a parent or someone you care about is starting to deteriorate."
The living room of the Grosses' La Plata home is filled with several photographs of their son posing with golf luminaries -- including Arnold Palmer -- and about 100 of their son's tournament trophies and medals. Several others are packed away.
In December 2002, the Grosses sold their La Plata house -- which had a basement ceiling high enough for Joe Jr. to take practice swings into a net -- and moved into a two-story townhouse nearby. It was supposed to be a temporary relocation. The Grosses bought land for a new house near the fifth hole of the course at Swan Point Yacht & Country Club, which sits on the southern tip of Charles County along the banks of the Potomac River.
Construction plans were delayed in the summer of 2003, and later that fall, Joe Sr. fell ill. Sharon quit her job to take care of him. Any thoughts of moving were postponed. Swan Point is a half-hour from La Plata, the nearest stores and the hospital.
When Joe Sr.'s health began to seesaw last winter -- promising weeks were followed by dismal ones -- his son's grades and behavior turned similarly inconsistent.
"Golf had been his life and it consumed his life," Meiser said. "I saw a boy just trying to find himself."
By the last quarter of last year, Gross turned to home-schooling to rescue his grades and also to keep an eye on his father. But at the end of the summer, Gross wanted to return to La Plata to play his senior season of high school golf.
"That was the whole purpose of going back to school," he said, "to defend my state championship and make All-Met four years in a row. [Otherwise] I would have stayed [home-schooled] and spent time with my dad, because there's no telling how much longer he'll be around. . . .
"If I go to school, it's five, six hours, and then there's practice. I don't want to come home and hear that my dad passed away and I wasn't there to see him."
But the suspensions from school ended his high school golf career. He could make the one-hour drive to College Park to watch the state tournament today, but that is doubtful.
"In his shoes, he might be embarrassed," said La Plata sophomore Daniel Barnas, Gross's closest friend on the team. "He doesn't want to watch anyone take his title."
Gross said he is committed to proving that his best golf is not behind him. He hopes to play in several junior tournaments this winter and reacquaint himself with recruiters.
People are "telling me that I've screwed up or have to go to community college or junior college," he said. "It's not a good feeling, but I'm not going to let it break me down. I've got to get out and show people that I'm still the golfer that I was before, when I was breaking 70."
Gross said he has begun meeting with a psychiatrist. When he tells his story, he prefers to tell it backward, starting with today, a life with a sick father and no golf; and then moving on to his school missteps and poor judgment; and finally on to his state championships and times bonding with his father during practice rounds or on nine-hour drives to tournaments.
"That way I get to the good stuff at the end," he said.