Two weeks ago, Mark Mihal was having a pretty good Friday at Annbriar Golf Course in Waterloo, Illinois, until he got halfway through the course’s dogleg-left par 5 number 14. The 43-year-old mortgage broker from St. Louis had driven 40 minutes from home because it was the first good weather they’d had for awhile. He and the rest of his regular Friday foursome—Mike Peters, Ed Magaletta, and Hank Martinez—came too. Since they’d played in a tournament at Annbriar a few months earlier, they played for free this time.
The plan was for Mihal and Peters, who teamed up, to destroy Magaletta and Hernandez in a pairs competition and take all their money in some friendly betting. By hole 14, they were up about 50 bucks each.
Mihal, about a 5 handicap, was 1-over for the day and had just put his second shot within 80 yards of the green, setting him up for an easy birdie attempt. Meanwhile, Magaletta and Martinez were stuck in the woods across the fairway, trying to chip out.
And then the earth opened beneath Mihal and swallowed him up.
After Mihal’s second shot, he walked toward the middle of the fairway to check the yardage for Peters. He noticed a strange indention. “Hey, check this out,” he said to Peters. “Look at this depression right in the middle of the fairway.”
Peters chuckled and said, yeah, you could hit a great drive and end up in what looked like a sand trap without sand, and that isn’t too fair. Peters then turned to size up his shot while Mihal, wanting to see what it would take to actually hit out of the thing, stepped down into the indention. That’s when he fell through the ground.
MIHAL GRABBED AT THE ground as he dropped, but it crumbled in his hand, and he fell for what felt like a very long time. Twenty feet later, he landed, crashing to the ground and badly dislocating his left shoulder. He fought back panic—Mihal is a self-diagnosed claustrophobe—as he yelled for help and tried to figure out what the hell had just happened.
Hearing Mihal’s shouts, Peters turned to find that his friend had vanished. He followed the shouts to the indention, which now featured a three-foot-wide hole that looked like it descended into eternal darkness. He yelled to Magaletta and Martinez to call 911, saying Mark fell into the ground.
When they called 911, they had to convince operators that it wasn’t a prank. Same for when they called the clubhouse. When the 911 dispatcher contacted EMS, they asked if they should send a fire truck. The dispatcher said no—apparently misunderstanding Mihal’s plight and thinking that some guy had just tipped over—and merely sent an ambulance.
Meanwhile, Mihal was underground, trying to figure out what the heck had just happened. Looking around his new cave, he thought it was in some sort of horror-movie trap. The walls looked manmade. He tried not to obsess over the news report he’d seen the other night, the tragic one about the man in Florida who’d fallen through a sinkhole in his own home, never to be seen again. It didn’t help that dirt kept falling on his head. He tried to take his mind off of it, which worked at first when he thought about how he’d ruined his sweater and how filthy he was, but then he started thinking about snakes crawling out of the walls, so then he started analyzing his cave some more, but then he kept seeing cracks in the ground where the darkness just went on forever, so then he just tried to stop visualizing the ground giving way again.
It took about 10 minutes for someone from the clubhouse—which was only 400 yards away—to show up. The ladder they brought only reached 12 feet down. They lodged it precipitously on a seven-or-eight-foot mound of mud in the cave, but Mihal’s shoulder was so hurt that he couldn’t climb.
Magaletta carefully and anxiously climbed down into the hole to help Mihal out. He made a sling out of his windbreaker for Mihal’s shoulder and tied a rope around Mihal’s waist and helped hoist him up the ladder and to safety.
They did not finish the round, meaning the bets were never settled, meaning that although Mihal was probably the victim of a freak nature accident, also maybe he was shrewdly sabotaged by Magaletta and Martinez, fed up with him always emptying their wallets. Naturally, they claim innocence, and lucky for them, science backs them up.
SAM PANNO, A SENIOR geochemist at the Illinois State Geological Survey, told the Associated Press that sinkholes are actually common in the area—there are about 15,000 recorded in southwestern Illinois, Panino said. This is because of the scores of underground mines in the area. Panno also said that Mihal’s sinkhole was caused by subsurface limestone that dissolves from acidic rainwater, melting snow, and carbon dioxide, which will, well, make you fall through it.
What happened next was just as unexpected.
Mihal’s wife, Lori, posted the story to GolfManna.com, a fledgling fantasy golf website that Mihal recently launched. Within hours the Associated Press called, and then many more after that. Mihal appeared on dozens of websites and major networks and had reporters camping out on his street and even on his lawn. The traffic to GolfManna.com rocketed from 500 to 1,000 hits a week to more than 200,000. Mihal did interviews with Good Morning America, Jim Rome, Howard Stern, and even an Australian radio station, and in the past two weeks, he’s turned down more than 200 more interview requests.
“I’ll be honest, I think it’s gotten kind of ridiculous,” he said with a laugh. “And really, I think the story’s just kind of embarrassing. I’m just glad I didn’t get hurt worse or get buried alive.”
His shoulder is totally wrecked. It has two fractures that he just had surgically repaired last Thursday by the St. Louis Cardinals’ orthopedic surgeon. Had to get screws put in and everything. He’s going to have to keep it immobilized for a month and a half, followed by four months of rehab, meaning he’s facing a mound of bills and he’s going to miss all the best of golf season. Annbriar said they would get back to him with their insurance information, but “they haven’t followed through,” Mihal said. “At least, not yet.”
On top of all that, he didn’t even get his winnings from that day. He actually lost money because he had to take the guys out to dinner as a thank you.
So when he’s all healed up, the first place Mihal’s going is back to Annbriar to finish that round and conquer his fears, right? Yeah—not so much, he said. “I kind of doubt I’ll be going back out there.”