Pro MiniGolf On a Roll

Playing the Masters for a $20,000 purse and the coveted green jacket

Posted 4/11/21

The U.S. Professional Minigolf Association (USPMGA) is celebrating. Twenty-five years ago, its President, Bob Detwiler, launched a cash-prize minigolf tournament

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Pro MiniGolf On a Roll

Playing the Masters for a $20,000 purse and the coveted green jacket

Posted

The U.S. Professional Minigolf Association (USPMGA) is celebrating. Twenty-five years ago, its President, Bob Detwiler, launched a cash-prize minigolf tournament in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Fifteen putt-putt enthusiasts answered the call for a shot at a $500 purse. Today, the USPMGA boasts hundreds of playing members and 30 sanctioned courses that offer championship purses of up to $20,000.

“Location is everything”, recalls Detwiler, a former high school coach originally from the Midwest. He moved to the oceanside resort area in 1974, opened a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor, and took over a minigolf that was built on a lot adjacent to his store.

Today, he owns two facilities in Myrtle Beach, home of the USPMGA and billed as the world capital of miniature golf. With imaginary themes ranging from pirates to dinosaurs, some 50 of these recreational ball labyrinths straddle the main road that runs through town.

Detwiler’s “Hawaiian Rumble” was rated the No. 1 miniature golf course in America by Golf Magazine. Centered around a tropical garden, it features a massive 40-foot volcano that erupts every 20 minutes. His second and more recent layout is the “Aloha”, or two 18-hole courses, one outdoor and the other indoor. Both are part of a 10,000 square foot entertainment center that includes arcades and a tiki bar.

Americans aren’t strangers to the thrills and spills of tapping golf balls through tunnels and around barriers. As far back as November, 1930, Popular Science Monthly reported on the country’s growing fad: “New craze has $75 million invested in 25,000 courses and a million players”. The do-it-yourself magazine went on to explain how to design, build and source equipment for a commercial miniature golf course.

The discovery of artificial green- cottonseed hulls, sand, oil, and dye- helped revolutionize putt-putts across the country. Hotel operator Garnet Carter patented the mixture and the earliest so called ‘Tom Thumb’ course, lined with inclined logs and water hazards, and decorated with dwarfs and goblins, became more profitable than the standard golf course at his Fairyland Inn in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.

The short game was all the rage in the roaring 1920s. For busy city slickers who wanted easy access to fun-filled distractions, courses were installed on Manhattan rooftops and hotel ballrooms. Mitchell Parish, a renowned Tin Pan Alley lyricist, even wrote a hit song called “I’ve Gone Goofy Over Miniature Golf”. But then it all ended with the Great Depression and most courses were either closed or demolished.

Today, the USPMGA isn’t the only pro minigolf organization in the country. The older Professional Putters Association (PPA) has been around since 1959, providing competition events for those who view putting as a sport. The PPA even held a championship TV series back in the 1990s.

The USPMGA runs 30 calendar tournaments, including 2 majors: The Masters, which is played in October at the “Hawaiian Rumble” course with a $20,000 purse, and the US Open, which is contested this month at Gator Mike’s Family Fun Park in Cape Coral, Florida with $10,000 in cash winnings.

“We have a division for everyone”, says Detwiler. “Junior, amateur, ladies, professional”. He also runs charity events for a Down syndrome center and outings for local youths. “Kids get their first taste of golf on the miniature course”.

Detwiler convinced Coca Cola and a local bank to sponsor a portion of the Masters, with the rest paid from players’ entry fees and from his own pocket. For winners, besides walking away with a $5,000 cash prize, wearing the green jacket and holding the glass trophy is a badge of honor worthy of stories and photos.

There is even a Hall of Fame for the standout putters. Bobby Ward was the first to be inducted in 2014, having won the inaugural Masters in 1997, the US Open in 1998, and several other tournaments on the circuit.

Over the years, Detwiler received calls from officials at the PGA Tour questioning his copyright use of the ‘Masters’ in professional minigolf competition. The only change he made was to adjust the font on his logo, a triangle flag over the State of South Carolina. Otherwise, he claims “there’s a Masters in every sport…tennis, chess, swimming.”

Minigolf, like most sports, can generate waves of euphoria and frustration. The precision nature of the game is similar to billiards where successful players turn geometry into artistry. Skillful use of angles and ricochets are key to conquering a course. For this reason, Detwiler claims that the swinging stars of the PGA  don’t have a chance against the mastery of minigolfers. Most holes are 1-3 par shots, making an 18-hole course a 35-40 par challenge.

Rainey Statum was the reigning champion of the 2020 Masters, averaging 31.17 a round at the 35-par “Hawaiian Rumble” course. The Texas native was also one of the players who represented the United States at the 2018 World Adventure Golf Masters (WAGM) in the Czech Republic. Based in Europe and founded in 2011, the WAGM has held annual events in England, Sweden, Croatia, and Kosovo.

For a $100 annual membership fee, anyone can become a pro-minigolfer. But without a national sponsor supporting the USPMGA, earning a living from the short game remains a dream for its playing members. Active and dedicated minigolfers have made tens of thousands of dollars during their playing years, but none have abandoned their pay jobs to pursue putting full time.

Detwiler hopes to change that. He thinks the game has yet to grow in terms of a popular following with media coverage. “If you watch the PGA Tour“, he says, “the most exciting part of golf is the putting”. He believes a national title sponsor with just $500,000 will get the ball rolling, and also realize a greater bang for the buck compared to the millions of dollars spent at the PGA.

No doubt, minigolfers will cheer for that opportunity. After all, who wouldn't jumpt at the chance to putt for a living?

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