As I was sitting in my car in a hospital parking garage, asking my now wife to marry me, I knew, if she said "yes" amid the rather dubious surroundings, that I would not only be gaining a wife but a whole new slew of in-laws.
It turns out, I was gaining even more in-laws than I ever expected.
The Old Greensburg Cup officially began in 1993 in Myrtle Beach, S.C, two years after three of my now in-laws got together for a weekend of golf. Two years later, my father-in-law, two cousins-in-law who are brothers and a close friend of my father-in-law all made their way to Golf Mecca over President's Day weekend to award the first Old Greensburg Cup, which originally was a trophy "borrowed" from the store room at Whitmire High School in South Carolina.
Over the years, the trip has evolved. It's moved locations a few times: going from Myrtle Beach to Biloxi, Miss., to Jacksonville, to a few stops in Georgia (Jeckly Island, St. Mary's). Its current home is Orlando, Fla.
There are way more people on the trip now. At its most crowded, almost 20 people have made the trek from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Indiana and South Florida to get together for four or five days of golf, competition and a bonding experience that has to be lived first-hand to truly appreciate.
I first met the bulk of my blood in-laws that go on a trip to Pennsylvania, where my wife is from, in 2008. My wife and I pulled into Mt. Odin, a golf course and park combo, just outside of Greensburg, hometown of Rocco Mediate and town adjacent to Latrobe, birthplace of Arnold Palmer.
I had an inkling I'd someday marry Katie. Meeting her immediate family was one thing. Going to a reunion of one half of her extended family was another entirely. This was a reunion of the Collantino family, who made their way over to the U.S. from Italy in the early 20th century. From that family, a handful others took shape -- all of them very large and very much still involved in each other's lives. (I eventually would learn to use the term fourth-cousin-in-law because terms like those were the only way I could explain how tight-knit this family was.)
So Katie had a big family, she told me. She said they were a little bit crazy, a fact they all themselves freely admit. But the size of the family in terms of number of people, their personalities and their collective heart was way undersold.
I met everyone. And I mean everyone. It felt like 60 people, though it was probably closer to 40. Being bad with names, I may have done a lot of finger-gunning so as not to offend these nice people whose names my brain forgot after the next five people I met that day.
But my connection to a lot of these foreign faces was golf. It was fate, right? My potential father-in-law was golf-obsessed. Turned out that so many people in Katie's family played golf. They wanted to hear about my blog and how I got golf equipment to review -- for free!
I had brought my clubs for the weekend and, in the bag, a few goodies of equipment I had reviewed but were sitting around my condo. After the booze had been flowing, the Italian catering devoured and cookie (picnic) tables obliterated, the golf bug bit us. Out came the Nicklaus driver I had brought as a bribe for someone in the family. Someone else whipped out a 7-iron and a few golf balls. An impromptu range was created in the park. I don't play golf too well when I'm drinking (as opposed to sipping?), so the barefoot form I showed off working at a local driving range as a kid made me look more like a 30-handicap than the 10 I was at the time.
One thing led to another and, all of a sudden, I was giving away that Nicklaus driver to Frank, the larger-than-life patriarch of the Krause family. He helps make Tennessee Vegetable Packers go near Crossville, serving as a broker, bridging farms to produce departments east of the Mississippi. He has three children: Johnny, an outstanding singer who just starred in "Les Mis" in Chattanooga; Amy, who is a new mother to a 6-month-old in Memphis with her husband Patrick; and Billy, who is a chip off the Big Cat's block in the best way possible.
"Why thank you, Ryan," Frank said in the drawl he's picked up from years of Southern living.
Tony wanted that driver, though. He loved that thing. Tony's a big guy -- an athlete, as we say in the family -- and an excellent golfer. He has a short swing, a bag full of woods with few irons and is always looking for the right gimmicky product to help his game. That Nicklaus driver was for him. I told Tony I'd try to get him another. The next time I saw him, however, he had bought three of those same Nicklaus drivers for cheap on the Internet. We still talk about that club.
It must have gone well. At some point, someone brought up the Old Greensburg Cup. My friends don't golf. God love my dad, he tried for me, but his baseball roots make the finesse and patience that golf requires an almost impossible hurdle. I went to golf courses -- and still do -- as a single, hoping to tag up with some strangers who could be my friends for four hours and then go our separate ways. But a buddy trip? It sounded amazing.
I was told that I couldn't go on the trip until I asked Katie to marry me.
That settled that.
Back to that hospital parking garage. It was Easter 2009. My father was in said hospital, recovering from an emergency appendectomy. The plan I hatched with my family and Katie's to shock her -- they never could -- with a proposal was in shambles. Every time I tried to get a few minutes alone with her, she found another reason to keep people around.
This was it, then. When I walked into that hospital room, my parents were ready to cheer with what they figured I probably would have done by now.
So I gave my impromptu speech -- my wife in the passenger seat, not quite sure where this was going.
And then I asked. And then she asked if this was a joke. And then she said yes as I slid that beautiful rock on her finger.
We all celebrated. We caught up with her family, proud that they were in on something so beautiful yet so deliciously secretive.
At some point that night, Mike, my now father-in-law told me I could come on the golf trip.
The following March, I landed in Orlando.
The week of the Old Greensburg Cup begins on Wednesday with everyone arriving to town -- by plane or car -- and making their way to our version of the "Real World" house. We rent a house with at least eight bedrooms. There has to be a pool, a nice-sized living room and, most importantly, a heated pool. (Every year but one that I've gone on the trip, the heater hasn't worked.)
One by one, small clusters of people arrive to the house.
That first year, I met up with my future father-in-law and we went to the house. It was beautiful, well-kept and big. Clubs went in the garage. Bags went down in the common room, with rooms being decided later.
In varying increments of time, the front door opened and new people came in the house. There's always a loud shout through the house, followed by a slew of hugs -- we hug, even if awkwardly at times. No handshakes.
I knew Frank and his son Billy. I knew Mike. I knew Tony.
I also knew the Zazzaro brothers, Rocky and Johnny, and their father, Rocco, who came on the trip despite not golfing.
I had met Marc and his brother, Harry, as well as their dad, Junior, who spent the mornings while we were golfing at the house in the sun with Rocco, or on a day trip to Tampa to the Hard Rock casino there. Marc runs his own bar in Newcastle, Pa., while Harry works in military medical. The brothers couldn't be more different, but both couldn't be more loving.
Then there were the people I had never met -- people I now consider a part of my family.
From Miami came Billy Walker, Frank's brother-in-law, and his friend, Tommy. They usually drive up after spending a day or two at Doral to watch the PGA Tour boys play. They're the original bromance: a pair of laid-back guys that just plain get along.
Then there's Joey, Rocky and Johnny's cousin, who comes down from the mountains of Massachusetts. He's always excited, always a positive guy. And he could probably run a marathon when he gets up in the morning.
For the first few years, Marc brought Don, who is a friend and customer at his bar, to come play. In fact, Don won one year, thanks in large part to playing better than his massive 30-plus handicap.
We have two doctors on the trip. Dr. George comes in from Indiana. He's a childhood friend of Marc and Harry. Then there's BTD: Bob the Dentist. Dr. Bob Foster is a good friend and golf partner of Tony's from Pennsylvania. You'd expect doctors to be a little uptight, but these guys are the coolest customers on the trip.
Those are the regulars, even if BTD missed last year. (He was conferenced in to a call of everyone in the '13 party, making him swear to make a video apology if he wanted to come back. That video hasn't been received, but Bob's in for this March.) Then there's a few guys who come and go.
There's James, Billy's friend, who is an excellent player out of TPC Sawgrass. He's an even better poker player, having done very well in several World Series of Poker events. His nickname is rather raunchy, incidentally given to him by Rocco while making fun of the young'uns. Even though he hasn't been on the trip in three years, Yardcock is mentioned at least a dozen times each year.
Sully came one year. He's a good friend of Joey's, but has been a transient on the trip. Sometimes he comes; sometimes he doesn't. But he's an outstanding man whose wild side is legendary, albeit largely curbed.
The first night is a whirlwind mix of things. Blood family members are catching up after not seeing each other for months. The pool is usually christened by Johnny, who loves how the water makes him feel, and Billy... and me, after I finally decide to just jump in the damn thing. It's never as cold as I think it's going to be.
Some clear mountain liquor is consumed. Sometimes, a lot on the first night, though it's important to pace yourself. One year, Tommy didn't. It seemed like he drank three quarts of the stuff. Somehow, Tommy got up and played golf the next day, albeit with a new name: Bernie. You know, like from "Weekend at Bernie's" because the dude should have been dead.
And then, at some point, it's time for bed. I'm in Mike's room. It's a given, but a great chance to spend a few days getting to know the good man who helped shape my wife. The two sets of brothers sleep in the same room. Tony is usually with BTD. George almost always sleeps on a couch.
Golf begins in the morning.
The handicaps used for the Old Greensburg Cup are based solely on how a player has done in the competition itself. There's a good reason for that.
I was very confident my first year that I would win. I'd blow everyone away. That kind of bravado was shattered when, on the practice range at Disney's Magnolia course, I cold shanked a wedge. I was frightened. That never happened to me. I spent 20 minutes struggling to figure out a hot fix. All of a sudden, I was on the tee, nervous as hell with a gallery of four future in-laws expecting a bomb down the middle. That didn't happen, and 90-ish strokes later, I had a terrible day.
There are two competitions on the trip. There's the Old Greensburg Cup, which is decided most years by a points-based series of nine-hole matches over three rounds. You get a point for each hole you win, none for each you lose and a half-point for each halve. The winner of the match gets a point, too.
And there's also the Cousins Cup, which is a stroke-play contest using a modified Stableford scoring system.
Even with the 15-ish strokes Mike gave me to start my first year, I was pretty much out of both contests. But I learned that even a touring pro would have a hard time holding up in this competition. The antics, the personalities and the fun all make playing good golf difficult.
Then again, that's not the point.
After each day, Mike, Rocky and Frank tally the points. They decide who won prizes for longest putt made and closest to the pin, as well as who scored the most points that day. Applause and the flow of money follow, along with a lot of glancing over shoulders to see who still has a chance to win.
Everyone seems to ask one other if they had a good day. Maybe, maybe not. But it's a way to share stories. For the better golfers, usually it's a chance to vent about how not having strokes can kill them. For the higher-handicappers, it's a chance to revel in the good shots and the victories.
But it all ends quickly as showers commence and we re-caravan for dinner.
There have been a few places we've gone together over the years, but the places we go back to are the ones that can make the dinner feel special. We're loud. We're unapologetic. We want to eat a lot, laugh a lot and drink a fair amount. Translation: putting us in a private room is probably a great idea.
The dinners often involve some form of an eating contest. One year, Billy finished a 55 oz. stake to get his name on the wall at Charley's. Last year, we had an all-you-can-eat contest of snow crab legs. Billy and I challenged Tony, who walloped us.
Dinner is an extension of the golf round with the kind of cajoling you'd expect from a raucous country-club member-guest, except it's a family-family golf tournament. It's a meal you never want to end, which is probably why it usually keeps going for an hour after everyone is done eating.
Day 2 is Moving Day. For those who weren't obliterated on Day 1, it's their chance to position themselves for a chance at the Old Greensburg Cup.
The conversation isn't as free-flowing as the first day, at least for the players still in it. The unofficial radius for putts that are good gets smaller. On the 10 Scale, the level of tension is still only maybe 5 or 6, but it's tangible.
Almost always, someone who might have thought themselves out of it has a great Day 2 to give themselves a glimmer of Sunday hope. A Day 1 leader falters. One holds steady. And, eventually, the stage is set for the final round.
But that night is my favorite. Dinner is a good meal, but it's in-house, either take-out or some homemade Italian cooking. There's beer and 'shine poolside. There's conversation inside.
At some point, however, is the main event: LCR.
LCR is a dice game. There are three dice, each marked the same way with some dots, some Ls, some Rs and some Cs. Each player -- usually everyone in the house huddled around an overwhelmed table -- has three dollar bills in front of them to start. A player rolls. For every dot they roll, they keep a dollar. For each L rolled, a dollar goes left; the opposite for the R. A buck goes into the middle -- and doesn't come back out -- for each C rolled. As long as there are dollars in front of people, everyone has a chance to win. The last person with money in front of them gets it all.
For a first-timer, it might seem kind of tame. No one's going to get rich playing LCR. At most, someone wins $50 in a game. But it's a blast, and by the third roll, a newbie is hooked. Every roll brings ohs and ahs, screams, taunting and laughing. We'll play all night. All night.
In fact, Billy typically goes to his bank before coming up to Orlando from his home near Miami, asking for $100 in singles. The teller has to think he's going to go to a strip club. Nope. Better. LCR is an amazing game.
Championship Saturday is a weird day in some respects. Most of the field is out of it, so they're playing for fun and pride. Because the groupings for the week are made ahead of time, someone in the thick of it might be taking on an indifferent opponent for one or both matches. Or, as was my situation last year, someone on the fringe of contending, needing a miracle to win, took on a couple of guys who were hurt and struggling.
I was defending champion in 2013. I won, however, in a stroke-play format, used for one year because we had an odd number of people come on the trip. Don't get me wrong; I treasure that win. It's the first golf tournament of significance I've ever won. I don't play a lot of tournament golf. I'm not that committed and always seem to zig-zag in a lot of different directions in life. So this is my major, this one week in March each year.
The 2012 final round was the exception to that no-repair rule. I was in first place by quite a few strokes, leading over Tommy/Bernie, who was having a great week.
We had rode in the cart together early in the week, when he made an eagle on our first hole of the round. I did well to make a birdie and only lose a shot. From then on, I knew Tommy was the man between me and the Old Greensburg Cup.
When the final group of the final round teed off at Lake Buena Vista G.C. at Disney, I was a nervous wreck. I hate LBV, with a passion. I always play poorly there. The first eight holes make me understand what it would be like to be claustrophobic. With the exception of a miracle hole out at the par-4 sixth hole one year, I have nothing good to say of that side of the course.
Of course, I doubled the par-5 first. Tommy made a par, getting a shot. All of a sudden, my lead was basically gone. I was trailing after the fourth hole. I was pulling a D.J. at Pebble. Bad, bad, bad. But the best and worst part of it all was that I was riding along with Tommy the whole way. I couldn't help but feel good for him; Tommy's a great guy. But I felt terrible. I was choking.
By the time I hit the 10th tee, I downed a couple of rum-and-cokes and threw caution to the wind. LBV's back nine suits me better. It's more wide open and the sight lines work perfectly for me to be aggressive off the tee with a driver. And that's when I began to comeback. Pars were good. Birdies on a short par-4 13th and the ensuing very short par-5 14th put me back in the driver's seat. (I drove the cart all afternoon.)
I had surpassed Tommy and, standing on the 18th tee, just needed to hang on. A perfect drive down the right side set me up for the wedge I needed to finally exhale. It was pure enough, landing on the green with everyone watching. I let out a sigh of relief. I was going to win.
The trophy ceremony is a bit of a hasty one, but getting the Old Greensburg Cup and Cousins Cup plaque from Johnny -- who always presents the trophy -- was an awesome moment. And I didn't have to pay for the extra weight in my luggage.
The most memorable moments of my four years on this trip, however, have so little to do with the golf.
There's been the great times at restaurants, kitchen tables, in pools and grocery stores, shopping for a house of 16-18 guys.
There's been the strange, like that trip to the hospital and playing a golf course that could have doubled as a dog track.
There's been the hilarious, like the two times I went to Golf Channel to appear on "Morning Drive." I took Billy in 2011 when we drove up from Doral. I took my father-in-law the next year. Both loved seeing Golf Channel, but were tickled pink to meet the gracious and stunning Holly Sonders in person.
Then there was the absurd, like that time at Stoneybrook West that a cart boy impersonated an assistant pro, cut in front of our groups, then threatened to put a bullet in our heads. It's worth a story unto itself.
Then there has been the terribly sad. Rocco passed away around Thanksgiving 2010, just a few months after my wife and I tied the knot. It hasn't been the same without him, a man, though he was only in my life a short period of time, who I knew had an incredible zest and appreciation for life reflected in every second he lived. His legacy lives on through his three children, Johnny, Rocky and Roxanne -- all educators, all who exemplify the vigor for life their father instilled in them.
My life has changed so much in the four years since I first played in the Old Greensburg Cup. I got married. I moved twice. I'm a father now. I earned my dream job, lost it, but found my way on my own.
This trip is bound to change in the coming years, too. The next generation of the Old Greensburg Cup will take shape, with Billy and I hoping Rocky's and Johnny's children might one day want to play. I'd love nothing more than in 20 years to bring my son to play. It would be the greatest early 50th birthday present ever.
But those days are long ahead. Right now, I can't wait for March to have a reunion...of my golf family.