By Ellen Perlman
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 30, 2010; WE14
The night before the mini-golf tournament, I climbed a staircase to scope out the rooftop course at Tee Time Miniature Golf in the seaside town of Stone Harbor, N.J. Looking back, it would have been a much better idea to actually practice on it.
Instead, I ended up engaging in the other post-sunset activity typical of beachgoers: eating fast-melting ice cream on a hot summer night.
The morning of the tournament, I am grouped with four other players: Sid Rocke, an infrequent mini-golfer from Washington; Will Fox, a golfer on big courses; his son, Will Jr.; and Patrick Caldwell, the 14-year-old returning champ from the previous week, whose photo is posted downstairs at Tee Time's entrance, on what looks more like a wanted poster than a winner poster.
Patrick, from Martinsville, N.J., has left his family behind at their beach house in his attempt to retain his champion status.
This is daunting. So is the course.
That's what attracted me. I loved mini-golf as a kid, despite being an average player. And my hometown course had obstacles that mattered. You had to send golf balls through little doors and tunnels and avoid obstructions. Challenges were everywhere. It was great. I even had a birthday party there once.
Later in life, it seemed that mini-golf was all about decoration, with no complexity. Until I discovered Tee Time several years ago during a trip to Stone Harbor. I'd long wanted to get back and try it again.
Tee Time has strange and wondrous holes. If you're a mini-golf lover and have played scads of pirate- or wild-animal-themed, green-felted courses, this one may seem odd. Barren even.
But almost any European miniature golfer will recognize the holes. Tee Time owner Lynne Schaefer imported them from Germany 12 years ago. These are holes played by people who compete in tournaments worldwide, on courses with exacting standards for consistent play that are approved by the World Minigolf Sport Federation. (Yes, there is too a mini-golf federation.)
Most Americans are clueless about "real" mini-golf, the way we once were clueless about curling, until it became an Olympic sport (which mini-golf aficionados hope for their sport as well). We view the game mainly as entertainment for kids. In Europe, many teenagers and adults practice, practice, practice to compete in tournaments or against one another.
What's different about this mini-golf? For one thing, Tee Time, which holds weekly tournaments throughout the summer, is a "hole-in-one course." With skill, it's possible to complete each hole in one stroke. (The course record is 26.)
Take Tee Time's fourth hole, the "Z-Bolt." Shaped like a wide Z, it has no obstacles or decoration. You have to figure out the angles and the bank shots. If your ball doesn't make it past the first zig, you may not go on to the zag. If you're precise, you can send the ball through without hitting the jutting angles, bank it on one wall and hit the hole in one.
Another difference is the lack of course cushioning. That familiar billiard-table-green material is absent. The gray course is a concrete and fiberglass fabrication. And "real" players use several dimpleless golf balls of varying weights, sizes and bounce, often changing balls for different holes.
Oh, and about those 18 "holes." Scratch that. Many holes are missing the actual holes. At "Thumbelina's Bed," the ball flies off a ramp to land in a large yellow fiberglass flower. "This is brutal," says Schaefer, who is keeping our group's score. At "Nothing But Net," golfers must execute a chip shot, sending the ball up a chute, through the air and into what looks like a fishing net, for what one might call a "net in one."
And, at No. 13, "Mountain of Misery," the ball has to roll up a ramp and stay at the top of a plateau. Too little speed and it rolls back down. Hit too hard, the ball bangs the back wall and, you guessed it, comes back home to mama.
But our group did well there. Mountain of Misery? Nah. "More like a Mountain of Moderate Displeasure," says Sid, who managed it in two shots.
At hole 14, Patrick breaks into a British accent, narrating the shots in the hushed whisper of a professional golf announcer. "This is Alton Peppercorn and I'll be your host this morning." Is it the heat? The pressure? The course's European aura sinking in?
Whatever it is, Patrick doesn't repeat this week. He racks up a 44, seven shots above his winning score.
Instead, 15-year-old Rebecca from Malverne, Pa., takes home the winner's $20 and T-shirt with a score of 34.
Me? Overall, my knack for mini-golf clearly hasn't improved since that long-ago birthday party. I got a few holes in one but also a few fives (the max), ending with 52, a solid "average" (in my book, anyway).
In second place was James Milward, 9, whose mother drove nearly two hours so that he could play. James had come in second the previous week as well and clearly wanted another shot at glory. Alas, even with his stellar 35, he was not able to move to the top spot.
"I guess it was worth the trip," his mother says, "because we're going to go to the beach, too."
Perlman is a consultant and freelance travel writer who blogs at http://www.boldlygosolo.com.Getting there
Stone Harbor is about 180 miles from the Beltway. Take I-95 north across the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Just before the New Jersey Turnpike, exit onto U.S. 40 toward Atlantic City. Take N.J. 55 to N.J. 47 to N.J. 347 to N.J. 47 south, which leads into Stone Harbor's 96th Street, the main drag.Staying there
Golden Inn Hotel & Resort
7849 Dune Dr., Avalon
About a half-mile from Tee Time. Summer room rates range from $230 to $350 a night, but try negotiating or using Priceline.com. (I got a rate of $149.)Eating there
Capt. Marriner's Seafood Restaurant
365 96th St., Stone Harbor
Overlooks the bay. Lobster, scallop, shrimp and fish dinner specials from $8 to $30.
302 96th St., Stone Harbor
Salads, sandwiches, fruit salads and smoothies, from $4.25 to $10.95.Playing there
Tee Time Miniature Golf
239 96th St., Stone Harbor
Open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. during the summer. Closed after Labor Day. Tournament play, for $5, is 10 a.m. every Friday. The regular course fee is $7.50 ($5.50 between 1 and 5 p.m.).
Tee Time Green
224 96th St., Stone Harbor
Another rooftop course, also owned by Lynne Schaefer, that's somewhat similar to Tee Time Miniature Golf but not regulation. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Course fee $7.50 ($5.50 between 1 and 5 p.m.).
Club 18 9505 Third Ave., Stone Harbor 609-368-4362 A four-story course with holes lined with familiar green material. Open 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. $5 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., $7 thereafter.Information