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

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

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

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.

Draino.

Playoff.

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.”


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