As The Windmill Turns

The U.S. professional minigolf tour goes for the green.

For most Americans, miniature golf is nothing more than a leisure activity—one that conjures up images of gimmicky theme courses, golf balls in assorted colors, and of course, windmills. But for a dedicated few, miniature golf is a competitive sport, with its own pro tour, cash purses and corporate sponsors. At the moment, everything about pro miniature golf is, well, mini—but that hasn’t stopped its promoters from thinking big, and trying to change the sport’s image in the process.

In September, thirty-three dedicated miniature golfers descended on North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to compete in the sport’s most prestigious event—the Minigolf Masters. The three-day tournament attracts players from around the world; this year’s tourney lured competitors from as far away as the Czech Republic. The contestants played a surprisingly grueling 14 rounds on three different public courses—in this case, Hawaiian Rumble, Sutter’s Mill, and Hawaiian Caverns—with first place awarded to the player with the lowest cumulative score.

The Masters—as well the sport's other “major” event, the U.S. Open—is the brainchild of Bob Detwiler, founder/president of the U.S. Pro Minigolf Association (USPMGA) and owner of the three courses on which the Masters is held. “The main thing I'm trying to do here is educate people in the United States that there is a competitive side to miniature golf,” says Detwiler. But overcoming minigolf’s reputation is a daunting task, and it seems every pro has a story about being mocked for his or her commitment to the game. According to Steve Norman, a two-time Masters winner from Farmers Branch, Texas, “I get razzed about playing. But you tell people how much money you can make in a tournament [and that shuts them up].” 

“It’s a victim of its own reputation,” says Gary Shiff, organizer of the Minigolf Hartford Open and twelfth-place finisher at this year’s Masters. He, for one, would like to see more golfers take miniature golf seriously. “We have very talented players here but I’m sure there are quite a few golfers who are very good putters that either don’t know about the competition or don’t realize they can use their skills on this level.” 

Of course, much of the terminology is interchangeable. Phrases like “reading the break,” “going to school” and “I pushed/pulled it,” mean the same thing no matter where you are putting. According to Shiff, a golfer with a good short game should be able to transfer his or her skills fairly easily. “It takes a little more speed control, but it still comes down to fundamentals. If you’re a good putter you should be able to pick this up,” he says.

With dozens of minigolf courses (and 115 golf courses) Myrtle Beach is arguably the U.S. capital of miniature golf. In recent years, Detwiler says he’s noticed more and more golfers sneaking in 18 holes of minigolf between rounds. But casual players still have no conception of the way the sport is viewed overseas. “Over in Europe, it’s very competitive. Germany has four thousand facilities and they have a tournament at each facility,” says Detwiler. The local winners travel to a national bahnengolf competition, which is used to determine the country’s six best men and three best women. Not surprisingly, Germany is currently considered one of the world’s preeminent miniature golf nations. “It’s hard for us to compete, but I’m trying to teach people here so we can one day be the best in the world,” announces Detwiler.

A major difference between U.S. and European minigolf is that Americans compete for cash prizes, while Europeans simply play for Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals. Yet, even the purse at the U.S. Masters is modest. This year’s winner, David McCaslin—a bartender who resides in Myrtle Beach—took home just four thousand dollars. Still, that’s more than the entire purse of the 2002 U.S. Open (three-thousand dollars), which McCaslin won back in May. According to the aforementioned Norman, who works as a sound engineer/musician, “You can't make a living at it, but you can make a little here and there. If I was doing it for the money I would have stopped playing a long time ago.” 

Another difference is that instead of unique, theme-oriented, “adventure golf” layouts, Europeans play on standardized courses like Betong, Eternit, or Swedish Felt Run, all of which are approved by the World Minigolf Sport Federation (WMF) for international tournament play. 

Betong was invented in Switzerland and features a lightning-fast, smooth concrete putting surface and continuous perimeter border of galvanized steel; Eternit features a cement-fiber putting surface and fiberglass obstacles; and Swedish Felt Run courses have a felt putting surface and solid wooden surround. In the case of Eternit, there are just 25 WMF sanctioned holes, any 18 of which may be included on a layout. “It's like going to a basketball court in the United States—the courses are all the same,” says Detwiler. 

Every other year Detwiler takes Team USA (the top American players, as determined by the results of the Masters and U.S. Open) to Europe for the WMF international tournament, an event where many players are obsessive-compulsive about their equipment. Detwiler reports that some competitors carry bags modified to accommodate a car battery, which is used to keep balls heated to a consistent temperature. “When we were in Finland this past year, there were two men and two women that shot perfect 18’s. That's almost impossible,” he says, incredulously.

Back home, McCaslin—who is probably the closest thing minigolf has to a Tiger Woods—dominates the U.S. tour. McCaslin has won the last five USPMGA events, bringing his career earnings to just over $250,000—one-quarter of what Woods earned for winning the PGA’s 2002 Masters at Augusta National. Taking just 438 putts during the Minigolf Masters, he beat his next closest competitor (his brother Danny), by twelve strokes. By contrast, yours truly needed 552 putts to complete the 14 rounds, good enough for a respectable twenty-ninth place finish.

In some ways, the Minigolf Masters is reminiscent of a PGA tour event. Each player’s name, hometown, and tour wins (if any), are announced as he or she steps up to the first tee. Television cameramen can be seen wandering the course, filming the players and taking distance shots that, predictably, often feature a plastic flamingo or faux volcano. (This year NBC’s Today show was on the scene; in past years ESPN has broadcast the leaders’ final round, along with highlights of the layout). 

But in contrast to PGA tournaments, playing partners don’t play the holes simultaneously; whoever has the “honor” must hole out before his or her partner tees off. Not surprisingly, there are no caddies—after all, American players hit the course with a single ball and putter—and the gallery is solely made up of friends and relatives of the players. In case you’re wondering, there’s no Green Jacket for the winner, either.

Now the challenge for Detwiler is to raise the profile of the minigolf pro tour and attract national sponsors that can help bring the prize money to more attractive levels. The formation of a players association (for $30 a year players get an actual USMGPA tour card) and an owners association (for owners of miniature golf courses) has given the three-year old USMPGA credibility. But the fact that the International Olympic Committee has sanctioned miniature golf as a provisional sport for the 2007 World Games is even more significant. “The media is starting to take notice [and saying], ‘hey, they must be doing something right,’” states Detwiler. 

To date, traditional golf companies like Titleist haven't stepped up to back the tour. “We’ve been doing this for only three years, so they don’t realize that we do have some credibility. They think, ‘miniature golf, that wouldn’t do us any good,’” says Detwiler. So the Masters has been relying on small sponsorships from companies like Pepsi, Carolina First [a local bank] and Nestle. But Detwiler is cautiously optimistic about the future. “I think we’re on the verge of getting some national sponsorship,” he says, which would effectively raise the Masters’ total purse well into five figures and help attract national television coverage. 

At the same time, Detwiler is taking care not to neglect his grassroots plan for building the sport. “The goal is to set up tournaments in every state. As many cities as would like to hold tournaments, we’re willing to help. We have guidelines and a charity for every tournament,” he notes. In order for the sport to realize its potential, “it will take an effort by course owners all over the country to run tournaments and start leagues,” concurs Shiff. 

Meanwhile, the current tour pros continue to putt along in virtual anonymity, taking advantage of the modest benefits afforded a minigolf professional. According to Norman’s girlfriend, Shannon, minigolf played a role in her attraction to him. “It was so quirky and unusual that it was actually a very big draw,” she says. “It’s like in Jerry Maguire when she [actress Renée Zellweger] says, ‘You had me at hello.’ I always tell him you had me at, ‘I play professional miniature golf.’”

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