ST. LOUIS - Mark Mihal was having a good opening day on the links when he noticed an unusual depression on the 14th fairway at Annbriar Golf Club in southern Illinois. Remarking to his friends how awkward it would be to have to hit out of it, he went over for a closer look.
One step onto the pocked section and the 43-year-old mortgage broker plunged into a sinkhole. He landed 18 feet down with a painful thud, and his friends managed to hoist him to safety with a rope after about 20 minutes. But Friday's experience gave Mihal quite a fright, particularly after the recent death of a Florida man whose body hasn't been found since a sinkhole swallowed him and his bedroom.
"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, from the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur, told The Associated Press before heading off to learn whether he'll need surgery. "It was absolutely crazy."
Annbriar general manager Russ Nobbe described the sinkhole as "an extremely unfortunate event, an event we feel is an act of nature."
"We don't feel there is any way we could have foreseen this happening," he told a Tuesday news conference.
Mihal said it was a real downer on what had been a fine outing.
With winter finally nearing an end, "it was the first day to get to play in a long time," he said. "So I wasn't expecting too much."
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-looking indentation about knee deep just behind him on the fairway. At just one over par for the round, the golfer with a 6 handicap was on a roll.
Then the ground gave way beneath him.
"It didn't look unstable," Mihal 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 out of sight down a hill. But one of them heard Mihal's moans and went to investigate.
"He just thought it was some crazy magic trick or something," Mihal said.
Getting panicky and knowing his shoulder "was busted," Mihal assessed his dilemma in pitch darkness as he rested on a mound of mud, wondering if the ground would give way more and send him deeper into the pit that was 10-feet wide at the opening, then broadened out into the shape of a bell below the surface.
"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 hustled to the scene was too short, and Mihal's damaged shoulder crimped his ability to climb.
"At some point, I said, `I need to get out of here. Now,"' Mihal recalled.
One of his golf partners, a real-estate agent, 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 sink-holes aren't uncommon in southwestern Illinois, where old underground mines frequently 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.
Nobbe told the AP other golfers are not in danger and the Annbriar course will remain open while officials seek geologist recommendations for what to do about the 14th hole's sinkhole.
"Every geologist we've talked to says it is unreasonable and unnecessary" to survey the entire grounds for other sinkhole threats, he added.
Mihal, meanwhile, is debating a return to Annbriar.
"It's a great course. I love the course," Mihal said, having played Annbriar a couple dozen times during the past decade. "But I would have a tough time probably walking down that hole again."