The world's best mini golfers compete for the green windbreaker
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.
Despite the A-List field, there's lots of parking at the Hawaiian Village and Rumble courses. Apart from a few spouses who follow the action from lawn chairs near the clubhouse, the gallery is mostly the players themselves. Indeed, no one who happened upon the Hawaiian Village course on a sunny Friday afternoon would have guessed they were watching the game's superstars. Unless perhaps they were following Olivia Propova.
Olivia, all of 11 years old, traveled 5,000 miles from the Czech Republic for the tournament, and she wouldn't even fit into the green jacket if she managed to win it. An impish, freckled tomboy, she's famous in mini-golf circles, drawing attention for her age, sponsorships (Olivia's golf shirt looks like a NASCAR racer's), and entourage, which includes her mother, father, uncle and two coaches, one of who doubles as her massage therapist. As Olivia's mother watches from the clubhouse, the rest of her gang follows Olivia from hole to hole, chain-smoking and carrying a stool for her to sit on between shots. Olivia's English is limited, but she does proclaim, "I love American courses."
That doesn't mean she always plays well on them. On this day, Olivia leaves too many strokes out there and finishes tied for 19th. Randy Orr, a tall, fast-talking salesman from Atlanta, is impressed nonetheless. It's hard to imagine Orr being intimidated by an 11-year-old girl, but he treated the prospect of a playoff against Olivia at the Mini Masters all ties are decided by playoffs with the trepidation of a Mob flunky starting the boss's car.
"I guess have to play Olivia," he sighed after checking the leaderboard. (Orr prevailed in the end.)
If Olivia is the tour's munchkin, Vance Randall is its giant. At 6'4", Randall towers over professional miniature golf in more ways than one. He has won more than $75,000 in prize money and was named "Putter of the 1960s" by the Professional Putters Association, which has Randall in its Hall of Fame. Randall is a "real" golfer, too, who once played to a 3 handicap and tried to qualify for the Senior Tour before back troubles sidelined him. At 67, he has a thick moustache and is revered like a small-town football coach. He is gray and pot-bellied, but still moves with an athletic gait; he's one of those "seniors" who can knock it 30 yards past you.
Randall actually led after the first day. But his years caught up to him on day two after six grueling rounds under the South Carolina sun. He ended the day 5-over-par, which in competitive mini golf is the equivalent of Tiger Woods carding an 84 at your local muni. (Par is always 36 in sanctioned mini-golf events two strokes per hole and a good score for competitors at this level is between 29 and 33.)
"It's just too many rounds," a dejected Randall said. "I just can't concentrate for that long."
McCaslin is in a pinch in the final round. He's on the eighth hole aptly named "Pilikia" (Hawaiian for "trouble") and his first shot finds a wide depression, forcing him to settle for a bogey 3. Oloffson fares no better. His second shot misses the hole and ends on the other side of the hollow. Two putts from there means a 4, evoking memories of when the unflappable Swede was entirely flappable. (Before his first Masters win in 2005, Oloffson was generally considered the Best Player to Have Never Won a Miniature Golf Major.)
The slip-ups invigorate Lebo, who promptly aces the following hole. Suddenly, the scores are bunched again, and a gallery begins trailing the players through the tiki huts and along the blue-dyed lagoon that line the back nine. When the players reach 18, an epic finish is eminent. McCaslin has overtaken Olofsson by one. Lebo played the best today, but is still three behind, an insurmountable deficit. McCaslin cards a two, so it's up to Oloffson, who needs an ace to stay alive. With more than 40 people surrounding the hole, Oloffson draws back his putter ... and pures it.
McCaslin, not one to praise an opponent, offers Olofsson his hand.
"Are you serious?" Olofsson asks.
The international rivals share an uneasy high-five.
A three-hole playoff later, the two are still knotted, so they move to sudden death. On the first hole, Olofsson's first putt rattles in and out. He takes a 2, as does McCaslin, but Olofsson proves too much. On the next hole, he drops an ace. McCaslin's answer just misses, and Olofsson retains the green windbreaker.
There's no caddie to give an awkward man-hug to, but Olofsson does unload a Tiger-like fist pump to celebrate his back-to-back Mini Masters titles.
"I can ace that hole three out of four times," Olofsson says after the round of the hole-in-one at 18 that sent him into the playoff. But he isn't so confident about winning a third-straight title.
"It's a real tough game," Olofsson says. "The Americans will be back."
And so will Vance Randall. The mini-golf legend shook off his bad middle rounds and grinded out a respectable 14th-place finish. Asked why he spends his time playing miniature golf when the former 3- handicap could be playing real golf, Randall laughed.
"You go to my club in Asheville, N.C.," he said, "and just ask them who the best putter is."