The world's best mini golfers compete for the green windbreaker

Mini Masters
Edward Keating
Men at work: Don't tell these guys minature golf is child's play.

Danny McCaslin is stewing. On the eve of the final round of the biggest tournament of 2006 he doesn't like what he sees.

"They're making the courses too hard," McCaslin says. "It's not fair. I mean, we're professionals."

McCaslin, 40, may whine like a spoiled Tour pro, but the layouts in question aren't Augusta National or Oakmont. They are the Hawaiian Rumble and Hawaiian Village miniature golf courses in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and the event is the Masters National Pro Mini Golf Championship.

To be fair, McCaslin, a two-time "Mini Masters" champion, has a point: the layout is tricked up.

"I pressure wash the greens against the grain so the fake grass stays up and slows down the ball," confesses Bo Taylor, manager, head "pro" and de facto greenskeeper of the Hawaiian courses.

He also pressure washes away from the hole, preventing anything but purely struck putts from trundling into the cup. In 2005, Taylor added a few subtle bumps to the concrete under the turf, and another year, he actually made the holes smaller. The players don't like Taylor's tactics, and have found ways to fight back. Cigarette burns, indicating the optimal tee positions, have begun appearing on the turf. Taylor doesn't allow smoking during the practice rounds, so he suspects players sneak onto his courses at night.

Trespassing, chicanery, deceit. If mini golf's most prestigious tournament sounds like a big leap from a Putt-Putt game with your pals, that's because it is. The Mini Masters, a three-day, 180-hole putt-a-thon contested each October, resembles the unholy spawn of a Hooters Tour stop (no one pays much attention), a Star Trek convention (lots of middleaged men, invariably in baseball caps and sunglasses, many with facial hair) and your weekly poker game (despite a modest purse, the competition is taken with grave seriousness). It is one of about 30 events sanctioned by the U.S. Pro Mini Golf Association, and the most coveted title among the tour's few dozen full-time pros.

The format is simple: four rounds Thursday, another four Friday and the final two on Saturday morning; low aggregate score wins. First prize is $4,000, a green jacket (more of a windbreaker, really) and the admiration of the mini-golf community — enough to draw more than 60 competitors, and their $100 entry fees, from all over the globe.

The camaraderie is also an attraction. After each day's play, many of the players assemble at Oscar's, a cavernous sports pub on Route 17 that serves cheeseburgers the size of headlights. They talk about their jobs and the day's rounds, and laugh a lot. An adventurous handful end the night at Crazy Horse, a local strip club, but, all in all, the scene is more like a reunion of old friends than a booze-fueled frat party. And that's what keeps McCaslin coming back.

"It costs a lot of money to get here," he says, "so you have to enjoy it."

Indeed, pro mini golfers, no matter how decorated, cannot survive off their winnings alone — the 2006 Masters field included a postal worker, a homebuilder, a bartender, an insurance adjuster, a teacher and a salesman — but the elite players like McCaslin rarely miss a big event.

On the morning of the final round, McCaslin, a waiter from Raleigh, N.C., is within striking distance: just one stroke behind the leader and Swedish dynamo, Hans Olofsson. Brad Lebo, a dentist from Philadelphia, is four off the pace in third place. The atmosphere is tense as the field mills about the Hawaiian Rumble clubhouse awaiting the day's pairings. Several players who are out of contention nip liquor in the backroom to help numb the early morning chill. Bo Taylor, having shrugged off the criticism of his course setup, refuses to handicap the top three, but does offer this nugget: "That Hans is tough. Nothing fazes him."

The blond-haired Olofsson, 31, is one of the few competitors who could be mistaken for a "real" Tour pro, decked out as he is in wraparound sunglasses and a stylish black golf shirt, and he has the stroke to back it up. His fundamentals are so sound that that he once coached LPGA player Carin Koch in Sweden. (Like David Hasselhoff and fanny packs, elite miniature golfers are held in much higher esteem in Europe than in the United States.)

Olofsson's main rivals today are cut from considerably different turf. McCaslin, a boyish 40, is the tour's good ol' boy, and one of three McCaslin brothers competing here. He once faced Ben Crane in a round of mini golf on ESPN's Cold Pizza, losing by one stroke but winning the rematch. Not that anyone's impressed back home at the Olive Garden where he works.

"Your friends laugh at you," he laments. "They don't realize how draining it is."

Lebo, the dentist, 45, looks like, well, your dentist. A former high school and Ivy League golfer, he's a little thick around the middle, but he has a solid stroke and an intensity that wouldn't be out of place on the streets of Fallujah. Like many other players, Lebo carries a self-made yardage book with notations of slopes and aiming points that would make Stephen Hawking's head spin.

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