ERIN, WISCONSIN | The U.S. Mid-Amateur field naturally lends itself to some interesting backgrounds and motivations. Certain players treat it as an extension of their professional golf or elite amateur golf experiences. Many others are searching for that one lottery ticket of phenomenal golf and fortune through match play, although the daily realities of their lives might prefer a missed cut.
As former PGA Tour player Roberto Castro jokingly tweeted last week after receiving some intel from his brother Franco, who played in this year’s event: “Half the guys on the range are acting like it’s the U.S. Open and the other half are taking work calls.”
But if you dig, there are always a few players who don’t fit neatly into those buckets. Harvin Groft, a 37-year-old stay-at-home father of four and expert vegetable farmer from Berwick, Maine, is one of those guys.
He’s not here to curse at himself after each shot. It’s also not a moment to stress about life outside of golf. Groft went with his father and caddie, Ben, having a concerted focus on being present while walking around Erin Hills.
“I really make it a goal to be interactive with people and not let golf be the determining factor of whether or not I’m enjoying the day,” Groft said. “If I don’t play well, if I’m only happy because I was competitive in a golf tournament, it’s a waste of everybody’s time around me.”
His circuitous path here – and the life he balances as a mid-am – is unlike anyone else in the field.
“I was reading something about Arnold Palmer and just having this idea that I didn’t want to look back on life at age 65 and be like, ‘I haven’t done anything but play golf my entire life.’ It had basically consumed my life through college.” – Harvin Groft
Groft is not a highly ranked mid-am, and he never harbored aspirations for playing professional golf after registering a stroke average north of 75 in his college career at Penn State. Prior to that, he moved around a lot as a kid because his dad switched jobs frequently, bouncing around to different call center roles with AT&T. Born in New Jersey, Groft moved to Virginia when he was 5, Arizona when he was 8, back to New Jersey when he was 16 and then to Pennsylvania to finish high school. Specializing in golf didn’t come until high school, and Groft wasn’t exactly on the same program as a lot of junior golfers are on today. He arrived at his first junior tournament in Arizona with a new set of cut-down women’s clubs Ben had procured for him.
“So obviously we show up and the shafts are too stiff and everything,” Groft said. “My dad was just kind of taken aback because all these 9, 10, 11-year-old kids had brand new sets of clubs and I’m showing up in tennis shoes with this raggedy set of golf clubs. He is like ‘Oh my gosh, what have we gotten into?’ ”
After getting some real clubs, Groft dreamed of playing golf for the Nittany Lions because of a deep family legacy at the university. It took a lot of catching up in both high school and college to get on the team. He was recruited by some Division II golf programs, but he decided to go with Penn State despite the school only being able to offer a preferred walk-on position. He earned his way to being a three-year starter. At the same time, he studied human development and family studies, a unique major that would be telling of what was to come.
After college, Groft effectively took an eight-year hiatus from competitive golf. He estimates that he played a total of 10 rounds of golf from 2009 to 2016. It’s in that time frame that his story gets particularly interesting.
“I was reading something about Arnold Palmer and just having this idea that I didn’t want to look back on life at age 65 and be like, ‘I haven’t done anything but play golf my entire life,’ ” Groft said. “It had basically consumed my life through college.”
Facing the fear that his identity had intertwined too tightly with the game, Groft pursued interests that the vast majority of amateur golfers wouldn’t even begin to consider. He started with triathlons for the sake of competition and staying in shape. Then he began work for AmeriCorps, which Groft describes as a domestic version of the Peace Corps. He received a stipend to live on while he worked with high school kids in Pittsburgh growing gardens on vacant lots in the community, educating students about the values of self-sustainability.
The agriculture interest hadn’t come from a past experience. It was simply curiosity.
“I finished school and was like, okay, I don’t have anybody telling me what books to read or what I need to learn anymore. I kind of just got into reading a lot of different things about sustainability and wanting to learn how to grow food and be able to provide some things for myself,” Groft explained.
Much like his nomadic childhood, Groft bounced around in his post-grad adulthood. He worked on farms in Vermont and Hawaii – about 5,000 miles apart – before heading to Montana for a Conservation Corps job helping improve trails and other public land. When the role ended, Groft continued to travel around the country, “living out of a backpack” as he calls it.
Maine was meant to be another stop on the journey, but he got weary of all the travel and decided to settle down working on a farm there. That’s how he met his wife, Andrea, a high school Spanish teacher and musician who was performing songs at the local farmers market where Groft was selling beans. They married in 2016 and have four children, including a daughter Andrea had before meeting Groft. Their hectic household includes Amari (15), Francis (5), Seve (3) and John Ananais (1).
“I got my clubs back from my dad because he had kept them at his house while I was moving around. And so I was like, ‘I’m going to just stop and hit balls barefoot on my way to the garden.’ So then I looked into the New Hampshire Golf Association and saw they had their mid-am (tournament) in the fall. I was like, ‘OK, I’ll sign up for this event.’” – Harvin Groft
“There’s never a dull moment in our house,” Groft joked. “There’s a lot of work to do every day just to accomplish the daily tasks.”
Around the time of the marriage, Groft was managing a garden for a community project in their small town which sits in the southernmost corner of Maine, about an hour north of Boston. On the way to the garden, Groft’s route took him by a self-service driving range.
“I got my clubs back from my dad because he had kept them at his house while I was moving around,” Groft said. “And so I was like, ‘I’m going to just stop and hit balls barefoot on my way to the garden.’ So then I looked into the New Hampshire Golf Association and saw they had their mid-am (tournament) in the fall. I was like, ‘OK, I’ll sign up for this event.’”
Quickly, golf returned to his life. Twice per week at 5:30 a.m., Groft would go play 18 holes and then go work on the garden. He started to play events again.
“I remember that first event, I shot like 1-over in the first round,” Groft recalled. “And I think I was leading. People were like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I had never played in anything around there before.”
Groft is now a humble 3,453rd in the world, his best results in the past few years a win in the small Suncoast Amateur and a top-five finish in the New Hampshire Amateur. He can definitely play – at last year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur, he earned the No. 3 seed during stroke play before bowing out in the round of 64 – but golf is kind of like the eggplant section of his home garden. It’s an intriguing part of the collection, but there are a lot of other elements to enjoy.
In recent years, Groft raised vegetables as part of an initiative started by local chefs and farmers called the Heirloom Harvest Project. Don’t picture the mass-produced vegetables at most grocery stores. For those who aren’t familiar, heirloom vegetables are the product of 50-year-old-plus seeds passed down between generations to form more nutritious, tastier vegetables. They are particularly valuable in fine-dining establishments.
Do vegetables and golf have any overlap? Oh, do they ever.
“Patience, for sure,” Groft said. “I mean, there’s just so many things you can’t control. You’re always dealing with the elements. Deer are going to come eat vegetables. Sometimes you are putting and hit an imperfection in the green. You let it be and you accept that the results are going to be what they’re going to be before you even start.”
“But my wife is incredible. Even while I’m away this week, she’s like, ‘Just be present, you should enjoy where you are, you worked hard to be there.’ She’s incredibly supportive.” – Harvin Groft
Groft now only raises vegetables for his family – it’s a big garden, and they typically don’t have to buy outside vegetables for several months of the year – because he is fully focused on being the primary caregiver of the family while Andrea works. He had finished a post baccalaureate program to become an English teacher a few years ago, but the passion for the job wasn’t there. He and Andrea decided that instead of putting their kids in daycare, it was best for one of them to be with their kids each day.
Because Andrea has the summers off, Groft has more flexibility to play tournaments and qualifiers during that time. They also have some help from nearby family members at times like this past week when Groft was at Erin Hills for the Mid-Am.
“Some of my friends are like, ‘How do you get to play so much golf?’” Groft said. “But my wife is incredible. Even while I’m away this week, she’s like, ‘Just be present, you should enjoy where you are, you worked hard to be there.’ She’s incredibly supportive.”
We mentioned earlier that Andrea is a musician in addition to being a high school teacher. She recently wrote a song about being a golfer’s wife. She has recorded albums in the past, so with a little encouragement, maybe she can be convinced to share it with the golf world.
“I have to get her to record it at some point,” Groft says through a laugh. “I think there’s one line about how she sees me in the morning and I’m smiling and she knows it’s because I’m going golfing that day.”
Groft didn’t make the match play cut this week. He had a difficult first day and was well outside the cutline as he waited all of Sunday and much of Monday without golf because of an extended weather delay. A bunch of players withdrew, which is totally understandable, but Groft and his dad had traveled here not solely for the competition as much as this moment to be together in a special setting.
They put a full effort into each shot down the stretch of the second stroke-play round on Monday. Nothing was on the line except playing golf in tournament conditions on a world-class venue during a gorgeous Wisconsin afternoon.
It reminded me of something Groft said earlier in the week. He spoke about how anything that grows in a garden, at its core level, wants to find a way to survive. Anything is worth a shot to experiment.
“It’s going to fight to live, and that is the fun part,” he said. “If all you care about is the end result, the process is going to be misery along the way. You have to love the process.”
Top: Harvin Groft is not a highly ranked mid-am, but he’s glad to be back in the game. Photo: Chris Keane, USGA
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