ST. LOUIS — Suddenly being swallowed up by the earth on a golf course’s fairway drove a wedge between Mark Mihal and a stellar round.
The 43-year-old mortgage broker was counting his blessings Tuesday and nursing a dislocated shoulder suffered four days earlier after he tumbled into an 18-foot deep sinkhole on the 14th hole of Annbriar Golf Club near Waterloo, Ill.
Friends managed to hoist Mihal to safety with a rope after about 20 minutes. But the experience gave him quite a fright, particularly in the wake of the recent case in Florida of a man who died when his bedroom fell into a sinkhole. That man’s body hasn’t been found.
“I feel lucky just to come out of it with a shoulder injury, falling that far and not knowing what I was going to hit,” Mihal said before heading off to learn whether he’ll need surgery. “It was absolutely crazy.”
Mihal had been having a fine outing. With winter finally nearing an end, “it was the first day to get to play in a long time,” he said.
Golfing with buddies, Mihal was waiting to hit his third shot, some 100 yards from the pin on the par 5, when he noticed a bathtub-shaped indentation about knee deep behind him on the fairway.
Mihal remarked about how awkward it would be to hit out of the depression, and then walked over and took one step onto it.
“It didn’t look unstable,” he said. “And then I was gone. I was just freefalling. It felt like forever, but it was just a second or two, and I didn’t know what I was going to hit. And all I saw was darkness.”
His golfing buddies didn’t see him vanish into the earth but noticed he wasn’t visible, figuring he had tripped and fallen down a hill. But one of them heard moans and went to investigate.
Getting panicky and knowing his shoulder “was busted,” Mihal assessed his dilemma in pitch darkness as he rested on a pile of mud, wondering if the ground would give way more.
“I was looking around, clinging to the mud pile, trying to see if there was a way out,” he said. “At that point, I started yelling, ‘I need a ladder and a rope, and you guys need to get me out of here.’ ”
A ladder that was hustled to the scene was too short, and Mihal’s damaged shoulder crimped his ability to climb.
One of his golf partners made his way into the hole, converted his sweater into a splint for Mihal and tied a rope around his friend, who was pulled to safety.
While disturbing, such sinkholes aren’t uncommon in southwestern Illinois, where old underground mines cause the earth to settle.
In Mihal’s case, the culprit was subsurface limestone that dissolves from acidic rainwater, snowmelt and carbon dioxide, eventually causing the ground to collapse, said Sam Panno, a senior geochemist with the Illinois State Geological Survey.
That region “is riddled with sinkholes,” with as many as 15,000 recorded, Panno said.
The one Mihal survived has him debating whether returning to Annbriar is a long shot.
“It’s a great course. I love the course,” Mihal said, having played Annbriar a couple dozen times over the past decade. “But I would have a tough time probably walking down that hole again.”
The 20-year-old course proclaims on its Web site that “each year new golfers are tested by our challenging 18 holes of golf.”
There’s no mention of its newest – and most challenging – hole.