It's a Jungle Out There

A mini-golfer makes his way through the Hawaiian Rumble in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.
A mini-golfer makes his way through the Hawaiian Rumble in North Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Bill Bamberger)
By Wells Tower
Sunday, June 25, 2006

In his quest to three-peat as U.S. mini-golf champion, Matt McCaslin would have to get past a long-haul trucker, an 11-year- old Czech girl with an entourage, a Latvian medical translator and a dentist. Not to mention his brother

On his way to a miniature golf tournament in Branson, Mo., Matt McCaslin made a pit stop in Hickory, N.C., to pick up a friend who would be playing in the tournament as well. Matt pulled into a parking lot beside a busy highway and phoned his friend to arrange the rendezvous, but before the conversation got anywhere, he squinted through the windshield at something on the far side of the boulevard. "Oh, my God," he said, with pleased astonishment. "You'll never believe what I'm looking at."

A casual observer might not have noticed the Putt-Putt sign, which was obscured by an AutoZone store, but Matt, who began playing miniature golf at about the time he started tying his own shoelaces, spied it as shrewdly as a seasoned hunter spots a partridge in a hedge. Matt is a professional miniature golfer, putting him in an obscure association of a few dozen touring pros who compete in five or six tournaments a year, usually vying for sums that little more than cover their travel costs. Matt won the mini-golf U.S. Open in 2004 and 2005, making him one of America's most accomplished athletes in a game that almost no one considers a sport.

With time to kill before his friend showed up, Matt drove over to the Putt-Putt to play a few practice holes. He fetched his putter -- a Walter Hagen model -- from the trunk. Matt's professional status, he seemed to feel, excused him from going down to the clubhouse to pay the course fee. He swung his legs over the fence, with no more hesitation than a man walking into his own living room, and dropped his ball on the nearest hole.

This particular hole was a plain rectangle with orange rails and elderly outdoor carpet the color of a sun-bleached lime. The sole obstacle was a rectangular obtrusion jutting from the side rail, blocking front-door access to the cup. Matt took a swing, and the ball beelined for the far bank and ricocheted toward the cup, missing it by a centimeter or two. He putted again, and the ball banked once more and lipped into the cup with a rewarding clonk.

It was a surprisingly crowded morning at the Hickory Putt-Putt. A church bus load of teenagers was casually roving the course, and at the sight of Matt wielding his expensive-looking club so deftly and with such intent professionalism, a group of adolescent boys broke out in sardonic applause.

Matt disregarded them and moved to the next hole, where the cup was guarded by a trio of capped pipes, which were scabrous with decades of white paint. "A pipe hole," Matt said, chuckling. "Man, this is a classic Putt-Putt hole right here."

Matt has played a fair amount of Putt-Putt in his day, but at this phase of his career he competes on "open system" miniature golf, or "adventure golf," courses, which are distinguished by such features as animatronic gorillas, giant bumblebees, pirate ships, plaster hillbillies, mini-Camelots, roaring dragons or anything else that a course's designer thinks might make a charming theme. Putt-Putt, whose holes (standard throughout the franchise) lie on flattish greens within rectilinear -- and unfailingly orange -- perimeters, is the staid, homely cousin to adventure golf. "Putt-Putt's kind of monotonous," said Matt. On the open-system circuit, he said, "each course is different, a new adventure, if you will."

Matt moved to another hole, but before he could swing, the Putt-Putt manager materialized behind him. He was an older man with a creased, disapproving face, ruddy with blown veins. "Can I help you?" the man asked, evidently puzzled to see Matt boldly helping himself to the course. But Matt explained that he was a professional mini-golfer, at which the man's perplexity seemed to grow only denser.

"I'm on my way to a tournament in Missouri," Matt said.

The manager raised his eyebrows, as though this was the damnedest thing he'd ever heard. "Well, I hope you win," he said after a moment, and walked back down to the clubhouse.

Matt putted an ace. The teenagers tittered, and one of them came over proffering a scrap of paper and a stub of pencil. "Can I have your autograph?" the boy asked.

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