The littlest prize in sport: The Minigolf Masters
With temperature controlled balls, state-of-the-art putters and its own Masters, minigolf is anything but crazy these days, discovers Johnny Sharp
Tuesday 30 March 2010
It's Sunday morning at the Masters golf course, and a quiet hum of intense concentration hovers over the carefully maintained greens. As the final practice shots are taken, the gentle clop of putter on ball is followed by the soft scratch of pencil on pad as the players note down potential angles of approach, green speed and shot selection.
"I'll need a ball with a good bounce for this one," confides our current number one as he weighs up the turn on the tricky 16th. "If you try and go straight over the hill you'll ... "
He is interrupted by the loud, crackling roar of an animatronic tyrannosaurus rex. Such are the unique challenges that face the cream of British crazy golf (or minigolf, to give it its official name) in this, the first major event of the season, the BMGA Masters, which took place earlier this month.
The setting for today's event is a prehistoric swamp just off the A3 in Surrey – Jurassic Encounter Adventure Golf by its correct name. While it may not have the history or glamour of the US Masters at Augusta, where Tiger Woods is about to make his return to the sporting arena, the competition is no less intense.
Indeed, if Woods really wanted to resurrect his reputation as a true golfing giant, perhaps he should come down here to New Malden for a quick round. There's no danger of off-course temptation round these parts, unless you count the soft aroma of lattes and toasted paninis from the nearby Costa Coffee outlet, and it would surely present an exciting new challenge. After all, we know he's pretty good at driving, pitching, chipping and putting on carpet-like fairways and baize-like greens of the world's best golf courses. But has he ever been asked to putt up a volcano or through a tunnel onto a sodden Astroturf green studded with large rocks, with a pterodactyl squawking randomly as he takes his backswing?
This is the third of 12 weekend events in the British Minigolf Association (BMGA)'s 2010 season, which culminates in the World Crazy Golf Championships in October at British minigolf's spiritual home, Planet Hastings in East Sussex. But however crazy the courses may be, these tournaments and their players are very serious indeed. There is no green jacket to be won today, but the tweed blazer awarded to the victor and the admiration of the small but friendly minigolf community are surely reward enough.
The BMGA was set up in 1998 and the current chairman, Sean "Freebird" Homer, an avuncular 43-year-old charity worker from Kent, runs these events with his wife Marion "Double Trouble" Homer. (Nicknames are as essential to minigolfers as caddies are to their proper golf counterparts – you would look amateurish without one.)
You realise this is more than just a bit of fun when, with a sharp honk on a plastic air horn, Homer gathers all 40 players for the first of the tournament's two rounds of 18.
Even the lowest-ranked players have brought with them state-of-the-art putters and little handbags full of golf balls, each of different sizes, shape, texture and elasticity depending on the speed, bounce and weight of shot required. "I've got about 25 different balls," explains one of the leading British players Andy "No 2" Exall (cruelly nicknamed due to an unfortunate habit of finishing runner-up). "But I'll only use about six of them today."
"That's nothing," explains Jas Kukielka, a 49-year-old builder from Newport. "Some players keep the balls tucked in their armpits to warm them up." There are also tales of players turning up with 200 different balls, kept in temperature-controlled compartments.
Exall and Kukielka are to be my partners for the day, as I am honoured enough to have been invited to pay my £15 and take part as a novice (a non club member) – and I am quickly learning that they and their competitors are the last people who would consider this form of golf crazy.
Some of them are seriously good, too. A notice on the clubhouse tells us that the course record is 30. That's an average of less than two shots per hole. A hole in one on every third hole in fact. I think I may have my work cut out.
"In Europe on the more straightforward technical courses, people have shot 18," points out Harding. Yes, that's 18 shots for 18 holes. 18 holes in one or "aces" as they're known in the trade.
That said, anything is possible in this game. The Masters' current number one is 47-year-old Chris "Who?" Harding, a tall, anorak-clad bookshop manager from the Midlands. Chris got his nickname when he came from nowhere (hence "Who is he?") to challenge for the top honours. Like most minigolfers, he has rarely played the conventional form of the game, but he was inspired to take up minigolf by reading Andy Miller's 2005 book Tilting at Windmills, in which the previously sport-phobic author tried numerous games before finding a talent for this one.
Andy Exall's experience was much the same. Introduced to the game when he and his brothers decided to enter the World Crazy Golf Championships as part of his eldest sibling's 50th birthday celebrations, he realised he had found his calling.
"I was a pretty average golfer, but always a good putter. I entered the World Crazies and I was leading after the first round! I fell away after that because I didn't really know what I was doing, but I was hooked. Before you know it you're buying £150 putters, all the different balls, and travelling to tournaments all over the country."
It is this instant accessibility that makes crazy golf such a pleasure and enduringly popular. The BMGA estimates that as many as a million people in the UK play the game every year, traditionally on holiday but also at the ever-increasing number of "adventure golf" courses like this one.
I am a typical crazy golf player in that I always have a game or two when I see a course on holiday, and as I note down a handful of twos and threes on my scorecard – even the occasional hole in one, I'll casually wonder if, with a bit of practice, I could get really good at this game. But I have also wondered if anyone plays this game at organised tournament level. I have found my answer.
Even if Mr Woods is too grand for this modest event, I am ready to face the challenge and am assured that however I perform, I will be awarded an official BMGA season only ranking.
Last year there were 165 players on the list by the end of the year. Initially I'm confident I can make the top 160, but I soon get more ambitious despite the relative handicap of my bog-standard ball. I start on hole 12 (each party of three begins on a different hole), avoiding a flourescent green stream, negotiating a water jump on 13 and then bridges, ramps, tunnels, before putting safely into the dreaded "volcano" – a hole at the top of a small mound which, oddly enough, is situated within a cave. Alas, the quick greens around the cup prove more testing, leading to a couple of rather dismal fours.
So how did it come to this? When did this harmless, fun seaside pursuit get competitive?
Well, the facts are somewhat hazy, but it would appear to be another game which we Brits gave to the world and then watched the world play it better than us.
It is said that minigolf was invented in 1867 by members of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, who built a miniature course known as The Himalayas. This was chiefly so their wives could play – it was not socially acceptable for ladies to perform the wild movements a full golf swing requires. In 1912 a game called "Golfstacle" was briefly marketed by a British Army colonel, William Senhouse Clarke, but it was in America that miniature golf first enjoyed mass popularity in the 1920s, resulting in the first known minigolf competition, the National Tom Thumb Open in 1930.
The depression put paid to many American courses, but miniature golf later gained in popularity in countries such as Germany, Austria, Sweden and Finland, which it retains to this day.
The 1960s also saw the first big boom in crazy golf over here with the opening of a series of Arnold Palmer Crazy Golf Courses. Their windmills and waterwheels are still part of the faded seaside furniture of our fair islands.
There are now reported to be over 11,000 registered competitive players in Germany alone but minigolf is something of an umbrella term. It may not surprise you to learn that the never-knowingly-crazy northern Europeans enjoy a more sober, clinical form of the game, on standardised cement or felt courses which confirm to certain size and features, on which players are able to perfect their game to the point where the aforementioned round of 18 is possible.
The term "crazy" golf usually refers to the traditional British seaside courses with windmills and the like, while "adventure" golf is the term for the modern, Florida-style themed courses such as Jurassic Encounter.
If there is a Tiger Woods of British minigolf, it is probably five-time World Crazy Golf Champion Tim "Ace Man" Davies. Or that's what he would tell us if he was here. Like Woods, he's taken a sabbatical; partly due to a third slipped disc (back injuries are the curse of the obsessive putter) and partly because his commitment to the game was threatening the domestic harmony he enjoyed with his wife, the retired former British Women's Minigolf champion Vicky "Sex Bomb" Sweeting. In his self-published book Nutters With Putters, written with fellow top player John "Big Top Ted" McIver, he presents an exhaustive and entertaining guide to the game, from history to techniques to terminology to gamesmanship – such as his recommendation of cultivating your body odour to unsettle opponents. It may be those kind of dirty tricks and unapologetic arrogance that have made him a controversial figure among the BMGA faithful – not that anyone wished to enter a public war of words with him today, as his mouth is as big as his reputation.
Talking on the phone to me later, he will reiterate his long-standing crazy golf challenge to Tiger Woods. "I'd tear him apart – he wouldn't stand a chance. I'm a better crazy golfer than he'll ever be." You suspect that's not the most alarming news Woods has received in recent months, but either way he has yet to respond.
Andy Exall also missed the first two tournaments this year as his wife is not too keen on his continual travelling to play. It is unlikely that she took a golf club to his car, as Elin Nordegren allegedly did to Woods', in protest at his divided commitments, but it would certainly seem like a game you either play with your partner or family, or remain a confirmed bachelor.
Indeed, Davies notes in his book how golfers don't tend to have Wags, but instead have MAGs (mothers and grans).
Not that this is a boys' club by any means. Tying for fourth on the leader board at the halfway point today is the current Women's Crazy Golf World Champion is Jo "Cupcake" Williamson. A 41-year-old fashion designer for Monsoon, she and her transport planner partner Nick "Top Hole" Chitty, 47, got into the sport at their local course in Hastings and have been regular tournament competitors ever since. (Titles for women, juniors and seniors are awarded in the same competition.)
"We prefer the traditional crazy golf courses to these themed ones," Jo says. "We love the look of them. And they're such a nice mix of people."
Not that she's likely to get too many fashion ideas round these parts. Pringle jumpers, spats and plus fours are in short supply. One competitor is taking part in his motorbike leathers and reflective yellow bib, while the top-ranked novice, 24-year-old aspiring novelist Michael "Hole In One Kenobi" Smith from Oxford, is less than resplendent in ill-fitting trousers, a sweatshirt and a Blackburn Rovers beanie hat. You wouldn't get away with that at Royal Birkdale, but the inclusive nature and snobbery-free environment of BMGA tournaments is another part of its charm, as families such as Jas Kukielka's can attest. "We played on holiday a few times, heard about the BMGA, and now we come down from Wales for every event," says his wife Cindy. "It's one of relatively few things that all the family can take part in and enjoy. And everyone's welcome."
Many players make a weekend of it, arriving on the Saturday to spend all day practising.
One of them is 10-year-old Owen "Jackpot" Johnson from Birmingham, and it's hard to imagine another sport which would allow him to pursue his sporting dreams in the top tournaments. Owen has cerebral palsy which makes a lot of physical activities immensely difficult, but his passion for putting surmounts all such barriers.
"He couldn't walk until he was six," admits father Paul "The Overtaker" Johnson, "but he played crazy golf for the first time 18 months ago and now he's hooked. Every weekend we have to go and find a new course to play."
He's also getting pretty good, to the point that he is disappointed at his first round score of 45. "I haven't got an ace yet either," he admits despondently.
"Owen's 'YAHOO!' when he gets an ace is one of the great sounds of these events," grins Chris Harding. "It's great to see someone getting so much joy out of the game." He'll soon have more courses to choose from, too – five new ones are due to open in the South East in the next six months. Yet the growth of the game as a competitive sport has been stunted by a frustrating and slightly surreal Catch-22: Sport England will not fund minigolf because it considers it a derivative of golf, which it already funds. The Royal & Ancient Golf Club, meanwhile, will not fund minigolf because it does NOT consider it a derivative of golf and wants nothing to do with it.
"It's nice of the golf authorities to ignore us," says Sean Homer. "because it strengthens our argument that we're totally different. But on the other hand it would be nice to get some help from somewhere."
Next month the BMGA is due to meet up with their well-funded European counterparts to enlist their help. "They're lobbying to make minigolf an Olympic sport," Sean tells me. "But we just want to be recognised as a serious sport."
Behind him, a life-sized velociraptor roars in agreement.
As the second round begins, I'm still feeling confident after par twos on the first four holes. The fifth presents a dilemma, however. Lying between my ball and the cup is a miniature Stonehenge, and between the standing stones is a narrow gap through which the daring or foolhardy can attempt to thread the ball on its way to the target.
Inevitably, I think of Jean Van Der Velde in the 1999 British Open, and his daring-but-doomed shot over a water hazard when he only needed to make the green in two. That should teach me that discretion is the better part of valour, but the lust for glory grips me, and I go for the direct route.
A strong thump with the putter sends the ball whizzing towards the offending object ... and straight past it, a foot wide of the mark.
But then it rebounds off the wall at the side of the hole ... and trickles obediently into the cup. I always knew fortune favoured the brave.
Tim Davies, for one, is incensed at the suggestion of luck being on my side.
"Luck is for losers," he spits. "Do you think I became five times World Crazy Golf champion through luck?"
It's fair comment and undoubtedly there's some impressive precision putting going on today. Indeed chance is the sworn enemy of the top players. We find Chris Harding on the final round four shots shy of the lead, grumbling at the unwelcome intervention of lady luck.
"I don't like these kind of courses," he admits. "When there's bricks at the side of the course which can send the ball flying off at an angle, it negates the skill factor.
"I'm resigned to not winning now. In fact that's the only reason I'm talking to you. If I'm playing on a serious course I barely talk to anyone, I'm so focused."
My own beginner's (or is that loser's?) luck soon evens out, and I finish on 42 again. I think I've found my level.
My partner from the first round, meanwhile, Andy Exall, has all to play for as he approaches the volcano at the 16th. Tying for the lead at five under par overall, he makes a thrilling death-or-glory attempt to putt through the 12ft or so to the foot of the slope and straight up to the hole, risking a calamitous fall down the other side. More cautious players would leave their first putt at the edge of the slope and take a second shot uphill for an easy par.
He punches the air as he makes the putt, and his courage is rewarded with the lead and, after another ace on the 17th, a BMGA course record of 32 – and the Masters title.
"No 2" better look for a new nickname.
The tweed jacket fits perfectly and the trophy is held aloft, along with a piece of paper with the handwritten words, "1st prize £100". Meanwhile, I've moved up a place to equal 28th, and that makes my season ranking 55 so far. It's a start.
Meanwhile, with an impressive 42 to match my own, young Owen Johnson picks up a medal for third best junior player. They need to send out a search party to find him for the presentation ceremony as he's already back out on the course, frantically practising for the next tournament.
Meanwhile, back home in Hastings, Tim Davies has even bigger plans in mind.
"I was watching Sport Relief the other week." He says. "And I thought of a great idea. Get Tiger Woods to play me at crazy golf for charity! James Corden could referee it, it would be brilliant! Like I say, though ... I'd wipe the floor with him."
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