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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)

Astra is the executive vice president of the United States ProMiniGolf Association. In Europe, mini-golf is more seriously regarded than it is in America, and Astra had brought a certain thoroughness to her administration that Matt found excessive. Astra had insisted on inserting an anti-doping clause into the USPMGA rule book, which struck Matt as absurd. "It's mini-golf, c'mon," he said. On the course, Astra carried a red, rectangular satchel that held 20 or so kinds of golf balls, along with a pad in which she had been jotting extensive notes, in Latvian, about the tendencies of each hole. For a time, Astra had tried to earn extra money as a miniature golf coach, which had not worked out well. "I offer lessons, but they don't even come for free."

Matt and Jim quickly breezed through the course, noting each hole's simplest route to an ace. Then they returned to the seventh hole, which was a large sigmoid corridor, with a steep bank in one curve, sloping down into a second curve before emptying out into a little cul-de-sac. No. 7, they said, had the highest "bogey potential" on the course -- all the holes are par 2 -- because if you didn't putt with just the right arc and speed, your ball could end up trapped in the turns, and it could take three putts or more to get out.

"This one's a beast," said Matt, after his second two-putt.

"A real beast," Jim said.

Behind them, two women and a girl of 5 or so were playing. The girl wasn't so much putting as herding the ball with her putter, which she was holding like a butter churn.

Matt suggested the trio play through. "You can go ahead. We're just practicing."

"There's a tournament tomorrow," said Jim.

"A mini-golf tournament?" said one of the women, fiftyish, wearing a pink cardigan and pearls.

"First place is a thousand dollars," said Matt, a touch defensively.

Then the woman teed up, putted and aced the seventh hole, a triumph neither pro had yet achieved. Matt and Jim watched the woman retrieve her ball from the cup.

"Hole-in-one," said the second woman. "Sign her up."

The men rehearsed the course for a solid 10 hours, until exhaustion got the better of them. They went off to their hotel, still feeling unprepared.

THE TOURNAMENT COMMENCED THE NEXT MORNING at 9. Over by the cashier's pagoda, the competitors were beginning to gather. The field consisted of five local amateurs and six pros from out of town. Turfside spectators numbered an even zero. One of the tour stalwarts, Tom Dixon, an independent long-haul trucker, was talking with the Grand Country employee who had organized the tournament. A stout man with a dark mustache, Tom wore a golf shirt thickly embroidered with an American flag and sloganry signifying his membership in Team USA, a detachment of 11 mini-golfers who travel to Europe each year -- at their own expense -- to compete in the world championship. Tom's semi, a vermilion Kenworth, is also a roving tribute to the team. The words "Pro Golf Tour -- Mini Tour" are writ large above the running board, and "Team USA" appears in star-spangled letters above the sleeper cab. Next time, he was telling the tournament man, he would park his truck prominently out front to help with publicity. "Maybe we could have an autograph session, too. Have people come out and meet the pros."

The man looked at him uncertainly. "Sure, sure," he said.

When Tom Dixon is not out hauling a load, he is at his home in Blue Springs, Mo., near Kansas City. Tom's mini-golf career, he said, is the tame conclusion of a life of bodily injury. In 1976, the tractor-trailer Tom was riding in went off the side of a mountain, killing his driving partner and leaving Tom close to death. "I broke my neck in two places, broke my back, broke my ribs and my nose, slit my mouth, slit my eye plumb open and left my face-print on the CB," he said. "I was declared dead for three hours. I woke up when they were sewing up my eye, and the doctor looked at me and said, 'Son, you weren't supposed to wake up.'"

Tom's r?sum? as a professional athlete, he said, includes stints as a semipro hockey player and a rodeo cowboy. After breaking his neck a second time, in a mishap with a bucking horse, he turned his ambitions to miniature golf. "I'm 115th in the world rankings," he said. "I've been to Europe. I'm even more famous over there than I am in the United States."

Matt McCaslin, however, wasn't particularly afraid of Tom's putting skills. "It's good having Tom on the tour," Matt said later. "He's somebody the locals can beat."

The tournament director called for the players to convene. He extended a special welcome to the touring pros.

"They're from the USGMP . . . uh," he said.

"USPMGA," said Astra.

"Thanks," the man said.

The players fanned out across the course. Matt, who was still feeling tense and underacquainted with the greens, failed to ace his first two holes, sinking each in two strokes. "I really could have used another day of practice," he said.

Jim Palisano, meanwhile, had a confident start, acing three of his first five, but he derailed on the notorious seventh hole. Matt looked up to see Jim stepping through the faux verdure, his face ashen and wet with sweat. "I just messed up on 7," Jim said, his voice full of shame.

"You bogeyed it?"

"No, I got a 4."

"Just shake it off, man," Matt said.

As the round wore on, Matt's game failed to take flight, yet he didn't allow his agitation at his lengthening series of deuce putts to sink his chances, either. Without a single bogey, he dropped three aces on his first 18 holes and five on his second. Halfway through the four-round tournament, he was in the lead by a stroke.

But Jim regained his rhythm. He quickly caught up to, and then surpassed, his friend. In the tournament's final round, on the 17th hole, Matt found himself one stroke behind. Matt putted, on a perfect line for the cup, but with a bit too much force. He missed, finishing in second place, a stroke behind Jim, for a prize of $500.

"There it is, buddy," said Matt with a rueful, tightlipped smile. "That's the tournament right there."

"Man, it feels good," said Jim.

Astra Miglane-Stanwyck, meanwhile, trailed Matt by a stroke, and would win a mere $250. The festival coordinator garlanded Jim's neck with a medal of imitation gold, and the three players posed for a photograph, Astra and Matt smiling a little less broadly than Jim, who held a foam-core novelty check made out for $1,000.

The men walked out to the car. Jim reinserted his putter in its gold case. He started to take off his medal as well, but then he looked at it, smiled, and said, "What the hell, I'll leave it on."

On the journey home, passing through Springfield, Jim looked out of the window and said, "Check it out, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame."

"Maybe I should pull over," Matt said dryly. "You could go show them your medal."

MOST SPORTS HISTORIANS trace the birth of American miniature golf to 1916, when James Barber, a well-to-do landowner in Pinehurst, N.C., constructed a scaled-down 18-hole course on his estate. But it was not until 1954, when Don Clayton built the first Putt-Putt course in Fayetteville, N.C., that the era of competition mini-golf began, quickly cultivating its own set of committed pseudo-professionals. Clayton had been an insurance salesman, the top seller in his firm, according to his wife at the time, Kathryn Clayton. He was also an extraordinarily driven, exacting man, Kathryn Clayton said, and by 1953 he had begun to feel the pressures of the job. He was plagued by ulcers and sleeplessness, his daughter, Donna Clayton Lloyd, said, and, according to some reports, bouts of inexplicable weeping.

A doctor recommended that Clayton rest his nerves with a month off from work. During his sabbatical, he built and opened his course in a Fayetteville pecan grove. The course adopted a deliberately simple design, one that eschewed the gimmickry of flashier courses, aiming instead for competitive consistency. Clayton built his rails out of wood, which yielded more reliable bank shots than brick, and he designed each hole so that a devoted player, with enough practice, could theoretically putt a hole-in-one. The formula caught on, and over the next three decades, Putt-Putt spread from North Carolina through the South, to hundreds of locations across the country, and overseas to South Africa, Japan, China, New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia.

Not long after the company's inception, Don Clayton founded the Professional Putters Association, mini-golf's first pro league. The PPA held its first competition in 1959 at the original Fayetteville course. First place in the men's division was a Cadillac. First place in the women's division was a Pontiac. The purses swelled through the 1960s, into the '70s. In 1973, during a short-lived sponsorship arrangement with Pepsi, first prize in the PPA Nationals came with a check for $50,000, $5,000 more than first prize in that year's PGA Championship.

The boom years continued until the mid-1980s, when video games began devouring Putt-Putt's share of the recreation market. Steepening property values made suburban acreage more expensive to lease, which hastened Putt-Putt's decline. Franchises began closing their doors, dwindling from 500 at Putt-Putt's peak to 150 or so today. Gone also are the $50,000 prizes of Putt-Putt's golden years: First place in the 2006 nationals offers $3,000.

In the late 1980s, course designers made an effort to woo back customers with the fantastical waterfall-and-rockscape courses one sees dotting the boulevards in American tourist towns. In 1994, Bob Detwiler, a real estate developer who owns a pair of Hawaiian-themed courses in North Myrtle Beach, started the USPMGA. The establishment of the USPMGA vexed the PPA, and, for many years, the PPA forbade its pros to enter tournaments on USPMGA courses, expelling anyone caught flouting the ban.

In 2002, Danny McCaslin, who was then a PPA player, tried to skirt this rule by playing the USPMGA's Masters tournament under an alias. Unfortunately for Danny, the PPA's then-president, Bobby Owens, had come down to North Myrtle Beach to stake out the tournament for delinquent Putt-Putters. "I was on the 18th hole, getting ready to putt," Danny said, "and I turned around, and there was Bobby Owens. I said, 'Okay, you got me.'" Danny was suspended indefinitely from the PPA.

At present, an uneasy truce prevails between the USPMGA and the PPA, which in 2005 decided to allow its players to compete in USPMGA tournaments. Yet hard-core boosters of Putt-Putt golf, who believe that theirs is the purer, more skillful game, exhibit open disrespect for the adventure golf world.

Putt-Putt "is based on skill," said Joe Aboid, commissioner of the PPA, who went on to characterize adventure golf as a childish game in which one's success is left mostly to chance. "It doesn't take much skill to hit a ball into an alligator's mouth, have it come out its tail and fall into the cup."

Bob Detwiler dismisses such criticisms. "Our tour is the PGA of miniature golf," he said. "You have to have the same skill level as a Tiger Woods or a Phil Mickelson to be successful on our tour."

IN THE FIRST WEEK OF MAY, Matt McCaslin took three days off from work, and drove down to North Myrtle Beach for the mini-golf U.S. Open. The night before the tournament Matt, his brother Danny and a few of their colleagues from the tour went out for an evening of pregame revelry. At 12:30 a.m., 8 1/2 hours before tee time, they had fetched up at a crowded bar. Matt, who had been drinking since happy hour and showed it, pointed out Randy Reeves of Montgomery, Ala., the 1995 PPA Player of the Year, a broad, florid man with more than $92,000 in career earnings. Randy was busy talking to a woman with a deep and freckled bosom, who was looking back at him with a vague, sleepy look.

"You have some beautiful breasts," he was saying.

Matt stepped farther along the bar, past a couple of women with brittle, long white hair, like beach grass in a winter marsh, and a man with bleeding knees and a glistening wound on his forehead, who said he'd just been jumped in a nearby parking lot.

Danny McCaslin sat near the end of the bar. "Helen," he cried out in a note of longing, not taking his eyes from a pretty young waitress who was standing nearby. A tiny blue light hanging from the waitress's earring blinked like a wayward lightning bug bleating a forlorn SOS.

Next to Danny was Jay Klapper, who had won the PPA's World Match Play and National championships in 2005. "Helen!" Jay cried after the waitress. "Helen of Troy."

A few more rounds of beer were ordered and drained. Matt said he needed to get to sleep. But Randy, the woman he was talking to and a friend of the woman's had hit on a plan for everybody to get into a nearby hot tub. The group staggered outside, and the guys started chanting, "Hot tub! Hot tub! Hot tub!"

Matt let out a pained sigh. "Oh, God," he said. "Tomorrow I bet I'll be bogeying every hole."

THE U.S. OPEN of the ProMiniGolf Association is a two-day, nine-round competition that kicks off at the Hawaiian Rumble, which sits on Route 17, amid a string of swimwear stores, aging shopping centers, seafood restaurants and other miniature golf courses. The Hawaiian Rumble takes its name from a 40-foot, concrete volcano in the center of the course, skirted by a moat, its waters dyed the deep, alien blue of glacial ice. Every half-hour or so, the volcano quakes with artificial thunder, and a four-foot kerosene flame spurts from the caldera. On the morning of the U.S. Open, a halo of gray fog was leaking steadily from a ring of vesicles a few feet below the crater's lip, but the flame and thunder apparatus had been turned off so as not to fray the nerves of the golfers, who were already on the course, putting away with nervous intensity.

Forty-three pro putters were competing. Tom Dixon, the long-haul trucker, was there, and so was Astra Miglane-Stanwyck. A European contingent was strongly in evidence, as well. Two players had made the journey from Finland, and their legs were sun-reddened from their days of practice. The most animated pretournament buzz swirled around Olivia Prokopova, the 11-year-old Czech girl.

Olivia had arrived in North Myrtle Beach with a trio of handlers: her father, Jan Prokop, a low-built man with piercing blue eyes; her coach; and her personal masseur. None spoke much English. Olivia's sponsors -- a Czech manufacturer of windows and doors and a wholesaler of electronics parts -- had footed the bill for the entourage's journey. Olivia, who later said in an e-mail that she practices from five to 12 hours a day, is a tiny girl with a closed, stoic face. She and the three men wore matching shoes and golf shirts. The shirts read "Olivia's Team" on the left breast. The shoes, which were red and white and looked like bowling shoes, were adorned with a large leather tag that bore "Olivia," printed beneath the Czech flag. "My goal is to be the best player on the world," she said via e-mail.

The group followed her to a hole. With the care of a tightrope walker, she measured two shoe lengths from the brick border and placed her ball on the carpet. The ball took a purposeful vector off the clubface, ricocheted gently off the brick and dropped into the hole. Olivia's coach raised his hand, and she high-fived him with unecstatic satisfaction.

On the boardwalk behind the pro shop, Tom Dixon, who had just trucked in a load of vegetable oil from Kansas City, was surveying the course. A younger man stood nearby, admiring the Team USA blazons on Tom's shirt and hat. "This year I'm getting on the team," said the young man, Dominic Munafo, 26, of North Myrtle Beach. "Did you know they're calling me the young Tom Dixon?"

While most of the players were dressed casually in sneakers, caps and shorts, Dominic had outfitted himself with such golferish eclat that he looked costumed for a catalogue shoot. He wore ecru pants of a faintly iridescent fabric, with crisp creases running the length of each leg. He wore a brass wire clip on his belt. The clip was threaded through a brass grommet that was riveted into the corner of a brilliant white golfer's towel that shifted in the breeze. He wore a sophisticated glove, a full-fingered gauntlet of white leather, with which he clutched a sleek new putter with a head of Corian, the countertop material. He had his name embroidered on the side of his cap, which also advertised the phrase "The Next Best Thing."

"That's kind of my motto," he said. "I'm the next best thing. I'm part of the new generation, and I'm going to take the world of miniature golf by storm." (Whether he'd intended the more declarative motto -- "The Next Big Thing" -- one did not ask.)

Not far from where Olivia was warming up, Matt McCaslin was trying to fit in a last run through the course. He studied the ball with eyes so bloodshot that his pupils seemed to be peering out from those red mesh sacks onions come in at the grocery store. He putted. The ball made a wobbly voyage to the hole and tumbled in. "I'm pretty damn hung-over," he said.

The tournament began at 9 o' clock. Matt was assigned a starting hole in the Hawaiian Rumble's back nine. His partner was a large, blond Finn named Timo Metsaranta, whose cap read "Disco Fever."

On his first putt, on a hole with a long, treacherous corridor curving between the tee and the cup, Matt hugged the curve with even speed, missing by inches.

The next hole lay at the top of a steepish plateau. Matt crested the grade, but the ball rimmed out. Another deuce. He pursed his lips in melancholy and went to stand penitently in the sparse jungle between the holes. "Why am I so bad?" he asked himself, pressing a hand to his brow.

Danny McCaslin, a few holes ahead, was not having a jolly morning, putting merely at par. "I gotta get out of my drunken stupor. I gotta wake up before it's too late."

The McCaslin brothers have something of a loutish reputation on the mini-golf circuit. In 2000, Danny and David caused a scandal by telling a journalist tales of their alcoholic and sexual excesses on the tour. David described, in stark detail, an episode involving a Fayetteville prostitute and a group of boozy pros, provoking a two-season suspension from the PPA.

In the meantime, Astra and Olivia were in the front nine, teeing up on a hole with a straightforward, 10-foot-or-so putt. Astra putted and missed, releasing a gust of air, like a valve breaking. Olivia dropped her shot into the cup. Her handlers, ranging close by, nodded in stern approval.

Over by the seventh hole, an older man in a striped referee's shirt was smoking cigarette after cigarette, watching the play unfold. The tournament was going pretty smoothly, he said. "We had to penalize one man for not wearing a collared shirt, but that's been the only controversy we've had this morning, thank God."

At the end of the first round, as in Branson, Matt's cool-headedness had kept him from tilting into disaster.

He finished fifth with 30 strokes, 6 under par, tying Olivia and one stroke behind Astra.

Timo made a sorrowful clucking sound. "I got 35. Every woman here beats me."

Dominic had finished out the round 8 over par, dead last in a field of 43. Yet he remained curiously upbeat, and began to hold forth on the merits of his Corian putter, made by the Silk Touch company, which he said was one of his sponsors. "It's the lightest putter in the world," he said. "I recommend it highly to any up-and-coming player. It's knocked three to five strokes off my game."

FOR THE AFTERNOON ROUNDS, the tournament departed the Hawaiian Rumble and headed over to the Hawaiian Village, a half-mile or so down Route 17. The Hawaiian Village is a somewhat less splendid course than the Rumble. Before Bob Detwiler took it over, the course had a California Gold Rush/railroad theme -- driven home by a novelty steam engine, a kelly green caboose and a railroad trestle. All of the former themery was still in place. The Hawaiian motif had been force-fully asserted by the erection of a number of thatch-roofed shelters that shaded the greens.

In his first two rounds, Matt McCaslin shot an unremarkable 34 and 32, but the rest of the players were having an even more miserable go of it, and unhappiness was general among the pros. Even with a lackluster afternoon, Matt was holding on to third place by a stroke. In the second round, Danny McCaslin put up a ruinous 38.

Astra Miglane-Stanwyck, too, was having a rough time in the Village and had dropped well out of the lead. Her woes deepened in the final round of the day, when the referee accused her of having illegally improved her ball's lie when she moved it from where it had snugged against an obstacle. For a good 15 minutes, Detwiler and the rules committee caucused on the matter, deciding ultimately that Astra need not suffer a penalty stroke and could be let off with a warning. But having her sportsmanship impugned was a hurtful blow to Astra, considering that she was one of the authors of the USPMGA rule book, and she sat weeping in the shade of the caboose.

Olivia Prokopova was finding herself in hot water, as well, putting 2 over par in the second round. To restore her composure, her handlers led her to a cool spot beneath the train trestle. Her massage therapist pummeled her shoulders for a while and then fanned her with his hat.

Brad Lebo, a dentist from Shippensburg, Pa., with career winnings of nearly $70,000, was the only pro having a stellar run at the Village. He was leading at 6 under par for each of the first two afternoon rounds. At a hole deep in the back nine, Brad paused to consult his notepad, in which he'd jotted extensive details about the hole's topography. Then he putted and watched the ball intently, willing it toward the cup by pawing the ground with his foot in the manner of a charging bull. The ball dropped in.

When the afternoon standings were announced, Matt was still clinging to third place by a stroke. Astra had plummeted to 10th. Outside the pro shop, she sat on a bench, trying to unburden herself of the afternoon's stresses. "Now I will smoke 20 cigarettes," she said, lighting up.

WITH THE U.S. OPEN'S FIRST DAY AT AN END, everybody went back to the Hawaiian Rumble, where Bob Detwiler had laid out a spread of hamburgers, hot dogs, beer and Old Crow bourbon. People commented on how the refreshments were a perfect example of why the USPMGA was better than Putt-Putt. "On the PPA," somebody said, "they never give you food like this."

Out behind the pro shop, Olivia Prokopova was the only player on the course, where she had gone out to hit a few balls. After a couple of holes, her father stepped onto the back porch, and yelled, "Olivia! Olivia!" Olivia walked slowly toward him, wearing a blank, conquered look.

"I feel sorry for her," Astra Miglane-Stanwyck said. "He used to yell at her a lot during tournaments. One time he was yelling at her, and I said, 'If you yell at that little girl again, I will break your legs.'" Astra, incidentally, speaks enough Czech to be able to make herself understood.

AFTER THE COOKOUT, those who wanted to try out for Team USA walked across the parking lot to a European-style course, where the qualifying rounds were being held. On a European course, where every hole is a par 1, the greens are made of an all-weather, Sheetrock-like material known as Eternit, a faster and less forgiving surface than outdoor carpet. Matt McCaslin dislikes playing on the alien terrain and declined to take part in the tryouts. In fact, Eternit has historically flummoxed Team USA, which in 25 years of competition has never taken home a world title.

As the afternoon light was beginning to soften, a dozen or so pros were advancing through the course. Dominic Munafo stood pondering a brutal-looking hole, on which one had to putt up a steep straightaway, through a five-inch gap, into a steel maze, at the center of which lay the cup. The six low scorers would make the cut, and Dominic felt confident that he would be among them. "Except those kids over there have really been bothering me," he said, scowling at a boy and girl who were hovering near the cup, fidgeting mirthfully in anticipation of Dominic's putt. Dominic took a few practice strokes. "I ought to do pretty well with this hole," he said.

He putted, and the ball caromed back at him like an echo in a small room.

"Ha-ha-ha," said the boy.

Munafo gritted his teeth, and muffed six more shots, the limit for the hole. "Ha-ha-ha," said the boy again.

"Dominic's having a really bad day," said the girl.

"Back off of me," said Dominic, striding to the next hole in a huff.

PLAY ON THE SECOND AND FINAL DAY of the U.S. Open began at 8, the weather report promising thunderstorms. Matt McCaslin was shaven and well-rested. "Just gonna try to get out here and play mini-golf," he said.

Matt aced his first putt, and then his second, pumping his fist when the ball dropped. But there was little he could do to catch up to Brad Lebo, the Pennsylvania dentist. Brad was having a mediocre morning, having racked up two bogeys, but at the next hole, he set his ball on the carpet and hit a long, loping putt that curved elegantly into the cup. "Oh, God!" he gasped. "Oh, God! You need one good break to win the tournament, and that was it. That's a monster break right there. That was the hole."

Across the course, Olivia Prokopova was taking a short hiatus from the play, receiving a forceful sounding pep talk from her father. She had not had a good first round, putting at a mere 2 under par. She stood on the boardwalk behind the clubhouse, watching a beer can and an empty potato chip bag drifting around the lagoon. Her father loomed over her, speaking in hard, brusque Czech. She pressed a hand to her closed eyes, shrinking under the shadow of her cap.

The rounds proceeded. Matt was playing capably now, though he couldn't produce the streak of aces it would take to close the gap between him and Brad Lebo. When the putting was over, Matt was in second place, still six strokes out of first. "Two tournaments this year, second in both, not bad," he said in a tone of mild dejection.

When the morning was over, Danny McCaslin, who had putted the final round at a staggering 8 under par, was the leader for the day. This tardy rally only made his misfortune of the day before all the more bitter. "I was beating Lebo all week in practice, then I stay out till 3:30 in the morning, and come in with a hangover. I didn't give myself a chance. Stupid."

The competition ended undramatically, with the players trickling into the pro shop, where the also-rans were milling around in various acutenesses of disappointment and achy feet.

"I shouldn't even have competed," said a man named Tim Trexler, of Rockwell, N.C., who had come in 25th. "I can only see out of my right eye. I knew I was fighting an uphill battle. I tried to get some of these guys to put an eye patch over their left eye and play me that way, make it a fair fight, but they wouldn't do it."

I asked him how he lost his eye.

He paused and gave me a sheepish look. "A bullet, actually."

How, I wanted to know, had he come to have a bullet strike his eye? He took a deep, patient breath.

"They think my wife did it, but it might have been me."

"Who do you think did it?"

"I think I probably did it," he said. "Last thing I remember is we was in an argument, and the next thing I know: Bam!"

Dominic Munafo walked over. Having putted at 17 over par for the last three rounds, Dominic had ended the tournament 43rd out of 43. The resounding defeat, however, had not dimmed the brilliance of the sporting future he imagined for himself.

"Next time I'm winning it all," Dominic told Tim. "It's going to be me and you, Dominic Munafo and Tim Trexler, fighting it out for first."

Matt walked in from the pro shop, and took a seat on a bench beside Olivia.

"How do you play?" she asked him in halting English.

"Thirty-two, 34, 31. You?"

"Thirty-four, 33, 31."

"Pretty good," said Matt.

Then the tournament administrator called Olivia back out to the course, to play a 15th-place tiebreaker round against Lane Helms, the proprietor of a garage door and elevator company in nearby Holden Beach, N.C.

Olivia walked obediently out to the course. She putted an ace. Her father, looking on, pumped his fist and gave a short, victorious bellow.

Lane matched Olivia's hole-in-one. On the second hole, she dropped another ace, and again her father roared from the sidelines.

On the third hole, a lollypop-shaped fairway with a circular planter obscuring the cup, Olivia missed the ace, and sank the ball in two strokes. Olivia's father's eyes went wide as though he'd just been impaled.

Lane addressed the ball. Olivia stood in a copse of tropical grass, watching with a kind of quiet horror. Lane putted and stymied himself in the curve. He missed his second shot, losing the tiebreaker, his face bunching briefly in a regretful wince. Olivia straightened up. She hazarded a tiny, cautious smile. Her handlers moved in for a round of high-fives, but Olivia stepped past them and made quickly for the exit, leaving her coach, her massage therapist and her father walking briskly to catch up with her.

AFTER THE AWARDS WERE HANDED OUT, the McCaslin brothers, Brad Lebo and a few other competitors went over to a sports bar on Route 17. Along with $1,000 in prize money, Brad received a vase made of glass patterned with a beveled grid that looked like a pineapple's hide: "2006 U.S. Open Champion" read the frosted letters. He brought the vase with him into the bar and handed it around the table for everyone to admire. Pitchers of beer were ordered and consumed, and the conversation turned to how regrettable it was that the weekend was coming to an end, and that tomorrow the pros had to go home and back to their day jobs.

Someone asked Brad whether he shared his mini-golfing triumphs with his colleagues at the medical center where he works.

"It's so hard to explain it to someone who doesn't play that I don't even bother," he said. "My buddies from high school, we'll go out drinking, and they'll give me hell about it: 'You're out there playing against 11-year-old girls? That's stupid.' I don't even bother trying to defend myself anymore."

"People just don't get it," said Matt McCaslin, shaking his head.

Then Danny McCaslin suggested that they finish their drinks and go hit the course again, just for fun.

"You want to, really?" asked Matt.

"Sure," said Brad. "I'll give you guys another chance."

When the table was cleared, Brad, as the U.S. Open's gracious winner, volunteered to pick up the check. Under a lowering sky, they went out to the parking lot and hurried back to the course to fit in a few more rounds before the rain began to fall.

Wells Tower is a contributing writer for the Magazine.


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