Mini Golf Masters

December 2014
Written By: 
Hastings Hensel
Photographs by: 
Randall Hill
The world’s best professional miniature golfers travel to North Myrtle Beach every year to compete in the US ProMiniGolf Masters. Read on to meet some of this year’s competitors.

Midway through the first round of his twelve rounds at the 2014 US ProMiniGolf Masters and under a smoldering volcano that at any minute will rumble and spit out a gigantic flame, Tim Trexler stands at hole eight—nicknamed pilikia, the Hawaiian word for “trouble”—and begins sizing up his putt. Everywhere around him there are distractions—the buzz of traffic on U.S. 17 in North Myrtle Beach, the incessant murmur of a dyed-blue waterfall cascading over a man-made mountain, the other competitors high-fiving as their putts fall in, or groaning and knee-slapping as their putts fall short.

But Trexler, for his part, seems focused.

A chewed-on, unlit cigar hangs from the side of his mouth. He’s got his white Tiger Woods hat perfectly molded for staring straight ahead and his new prescription Oakleys helping him to see better out of his one good eye.

He’s also five-under par, having just aced lei, hole seven, and it’s a front door rather than a back door shot, which means you don’t have to bank it off the bricks. You just have to hit it along the left railing at the perfect speed and avoid the gulley on the right and watch it roll into the cup. But that means it’s also a straight shot, the kind he fears the most.

“I don’t mind if it breaks left to right, or right to left, or whatever,” he tells me during a practice round, two days before the tournament begins. “But everybody expects you to make a straight putt, and that right there makes it the hardest.”

He squares the tournament-official golf ball—the Callaway Hex Chrome, with aerodynamics, a DuraSpin cover, and an S-Tech core (this isn’t your typical solid-color rental ball)—and then, with his Scotty Cameron putter (this isn’t your typical rubber-headed rental club, either), he takes a practice swing, nice and easy, straight back and straight through, just like Tiger, his hero.

 “The whole game is about speed and control,” he says, echoing what every other miniature golfer has told me. “I’d say speed control is even more important than it is on the PGA or a regular golf course. Everything’s got to be lined up just perfect.”

Professional miniature golfers don’t expect to ace every hole in the way that professional bowlers expect to make a strike, but they know when a hole is ace-able and when it’s OK to lay up and take a two–stroke par and move on. Just don’t bogey.

“Three’s a dirty word around here,” says Trexler, who’d be happy with an ace on pilikia, for an ace would put him at six under par here at the Hawaiian Rumble course, and that would mean an opening round of 30, at least. If he could play all 12 rounds consistently at 30, he’d have the best shot of his career at winning the $4,000, the green jacket, the glass trophy, and the chance to stand up on stage with past winners during the red-carpet ceremony at Crocodile Rocks.  

“It’s like if I was at Augusta, playing the speed and the break just right,” he tells me, and it occurs to me that being a professional mini-golfer allows you to return to your childhood when, on the putting green, you daydreamed about each shot as the last shot in a major, the one that would seal the dramatic victory.

He stands over the ball, hits the shot, then looks up and urges it on as it rolls down the carpet —“Run, ball! Run!”—undeterred by the fact that, just then, the volcano erupts in all its fiery glory.
 

DON’T CALL IT PUTT-PUTT

Miniature golf, carpet golf, adventure golf, funland golf—whatever you call it, don’t call it Putt-Putt down here. There’s a trademarked Putt-Putt America tour, to be sure, but it has orange railings, less undulations, and it’s easier to ace. The Grand Strand has a total of zero Putt-Putt courses.

Mini golf, however, is the game that seems to be ingrained in the very conception of Myrtle Beach. Driving along U.S. 17, you see almost as many courses as you do pancake houses and discount beachwear stores.

Indeed, all sports have scaled-down versions of themselves—batting cages for baseball, foosball for soccer, arcade free-throws for basketball—but something about miniature golf seems timeless, with its contrasts of scale. (On one hand you have the miniaturized course itself, and on the other hand you have gigantic sculptures of octopi, dinosaurs, mermaids, African safari animals, even the Taj Mahal.)
Inside his office at the main Masters course, Hawaiian Rumble, the president of the US ProMiniGolf Association, Bob Detwiler, thinks he knows why the sport holds such a special place in Grand Strand history.

“The number one reason anyone comes here is for that ocean over there,” he says, pointing across U.S. 17. “The sand and the beach and the sun. But you can only take so much of that. So you go for dinner, and then you’re looking for something else to do. And it just so happens there are few things a family can do as a group. They can go to a movie, which costs them more, and they sit there for an hour-and-a-half or so and don’t talk to each other and then they get up and leave. Here they’re intermingling with each other, they’re having a good time.”

And, yes, every summer at Garden City with my in-laws, miniature golf is something to be checked off the list as surely as going to the pier or eating a hotdog at Sam’s Corner. We approach it like any other family—with the serious competitors (men), the could-care-less players (women), and the wayward screamers (children)—a family dynamic Detwiler sees every day.

“A two-year-old and an eighty-year-old can play about equal,” he says, laughing. “The gender doesn’t matter. And usually the women will beat the men, and the guy will have come with his putter from the golf course and he thinks he’s going to whip everybody’s butt, and instead, she ends up winning.”

The professional approach, however, is anything but laissez-faire. The pros are here because they’re serious about the sport, and one thing they don’t take lightly is when regular golfers condescend.
“You start feeling pressure in practice,” Trexler tells me. “It ain’t no joke like a lot of golfers think it is. A lot of golfers think it’s a kid’s game, a joke. It’s as serious as any other. People lose tempers, throw their clubs on the ground.”

That competitiveness is palpable on the first morning of the three-day tournament, when more than 70 competitors arrive before dawn. Jimmy Buffett blares on the loudspeakers, the caged parrots are squawking, but a noticeable sense of quiet intensity pervades.

Bobby Ward, the 1997 Masters champion who this year was the first inductee into the US ProMiniGolf Hall of Fame, is playing Jurassic Park pinball in the clubhouse to clear his head.
Due to a finger injury, this is his first major tournament in four years, and he doesn’t know what to expect.

“I’m hoping to come in the top 10,” he says. “But I never expect to win. Always hope to. There’s just so much talent. You’ve got the best in the world down here.”

He names the players he expects to compete—former champions like Brad Lebo, Jay Klapper, Greg Newport, and the McCaslin brothers, Danny and Matt—a group I notice hanging out together during the opening ceremony as Detwiler welcomes everyone (“We want you to become great because you are great!”), and Ward himself sings a beautiful rendition of the national anthem.  

One name Ward doesn’t mention this year is Olivia Prokopova, the Czech teenage sensation and two-time defending champion who always arrives a month before the tournament with a team of managers, coaches and trainers.

“I didn’t start because my wrist is very bad,” she tells me while standing on a footbridge over the second course where the players compete—Hawaiian Village—and looking out over everyone putting. “I’m very sad. I’ve played for sixteen years, every year.”

She shows me a tiny, worm-like scar on her wrist, which is swollen and which she’ll have looked at the following week by a prestigious Czech hand-surgeon.
The ever-gentlemanly Ward says, “You like the competition. I’m so, so sorry she can’t do it. But our chances are about the same.”



Trexler, though, has yet to break into this exclusive camaraderie of winners, and after his tap-in at eight, he stands at hole nine, lani (“heavenly”) as the nerves begin getting to him.

“My chest is about to explode, but other than that I’m all right. For some reason I get more nervous out here than I do anything else,” he says.

Still, he plays the rest of his round at even par, a series of aggravating lip-outs and near-misses. Then another solid 31, then a frustrating 36 to cap off his morning.

“Shot myself in the foot there. I feel like I just lost the tournament after that round,” he says. “That’s the nature of this game. Up and down. Inconsistency. I was doing well, too. It’s just the holes ain’t cooperating. It could have turned ugly real quick, but I’m proud of the way I handled it, as Tiger would say.”

Over at Pineapple Village, where the best players all seem to be playing their first rounds, even more frustration abounds.

“Slow down … where are you going?” Matt McCaslin yells at his ball on hole 18 of the Pineapple Beach course. He slams his putter against the brick, slaps his thigh, and goes back to take another practice shot.

“This is a nightmare,” Brad Lebo says, shaking his head and crossing the footbridge. “I’ve wasted a week and a half of my life.”

“I’m disappointed,” Jay Klapper says in the parking lot before lunch. “But it’s a marathon.”

Everyone here, it seems, is now looking forward to the following day, when they can switch courses.

“It’s all about the Rumble,” Matt McCaslin says.

Bobby Ward, who believes Pineapple Village plays about three strokes tougher, says, “Yep. That’s my course. Hopefully, I’ve gotten my bad round out of the way. When you play twelve rounds, you can’t always find the putt you’re used to.”
 

THE BUSINESS OF MINI GOLF

Meanwhile, while all the razzle-dazzle and pizzazz of the Masters is taking place, things are much quieter for Ree and Charley Driggers, who sit behind a counter at the Grand Strand’s southernmost course, Inlet Adventures.

Recently retired from Prosperity, S.C., they bought this course in August, and by charging five dollars for all-you-can-play until 5 p.m. they’re hoping to see anywhere between 75 and 120 people per day in the fall and 300 to 400 people in the peak months.

The job isn’t too unlike operating any Grand Strand roadside attraction. In the winter months, you shut down and do renovation on the course and the clubhouse, and the best part about the job, Ree Driggers says, is the people she meets from all over the country.

But courses like Inlet Adventures and the nearby Gilligan’s Island or Adventure Falls often have holes that you wouldn’t find in a professional tournament—absurdly difficult holes in which you might, say, hit the ball blindly through one of three pipes and hope it shoots into the cup.

“Not many holes out here are what we’d call straight stupid,” Trexler says. “They’re tough, they make you think, but they’re not ridiculous. These two are the best I’ve ever played because they resemble real golf courses.”

Detwiler takes it a step further: “The carpet that we have is the Rolls-Royce of carpet. This is the number one miniature golf tournament in the world, and I feel like we have to have the best carpet we can get.”

What pro mini golfers do have to consider, though, is the “kick off the bricks,” and they practice these courses enough to know each hole in and out, every nuance and break. There are secrets—things that go unnoticed by the general public—a little indentation in the carpet, for example, where you need to hit it, but most pros are happy to show you the shot. It’s just all about your game once you know it.

And so you’ll see a range of strategies and techniques. Some players travel with printouts and notepads to consult. Some have long putters; others hunch over. For the most part, they look like professional golfers—Callaway hats, Footjoy socks, rags hanging out of back pockets—and act like them, too—the sense of competition by midday Saturday, after eight rounds, is thick.

Trexler is sandwiched between Klapper and Ward, right at 20th place, the cut-off for the final two rounds on Saturday. He goes out to his car and switches to a lighter Scotty Cameron putter, hoping “the ball won’t come off as hot.”

It turns out not to work. He shoots his tournament-worst  39, and on hole one he throws his hat down, exposing his bald head. On two, he throws his putter into the bushes. On fifteen, he drops his cigar.
“It gets awful frustrating when you’re hitting it poorly,” he says, before finding a kind of consolation prize for which to aim. “Now I just want the course record more than to win the tournament.”

Despite three solid efforts the rest of the way (29, 31, 30), he attains neither goal. Danny McCaslin rallies for an impressive 27, 29 and 31 to take his fourth green jacket, his first since 2007.

Still, Trexler will return next year with the rest of the crowd, putter in hand, having played the two courses repeatedly in his mind, dreaming again of victory, of the ball rolling down the carpet, banking off the brick, and landing perfectly into the cup.

“Wish I had a few holes to do over,” he says. “But heck, that’s pretty much everybody’s story.”

 

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