tom Dixon, one of America's top-ranked professional miniature golfers, is tracing the proud lineage of his sport. "All your top pros -- like Arnold Palmer -- they started out in mini golf. And look where he is now." He pauses a moment, contemplating the image of the four-time Masters Tournament champion in the mini maze. "Or maybe it was Jack Nicklaus."
Miniature golf has always been the scorned stepchild of what athletic snobs refer to as "real" golf. While few question the legitimacy of a pastime that puts rich white dudes in go-carts and festively outri pants, many of us still associate its baby sibling with little more than tipsy summer nights spent whacking balls into clowns' mouths. But what miniature golf lacks in rolling hills, sweeping vistas and millionaire champions it makes up for in cute-as-an-Olsen-twin courses and a family-values appeal that stretches across age, gender and a fair number of talent barriers. Now, in what may be the most challenging makeover since Courtney Love, miniature golf wants to be taken more seriously than a game meant to be played with a bag of Twizzlers. "Look, how many times does anyone want to hit a ball through a teepee?" grouses Skip Laun, the jauntily named executive director of the Miniature Golf Association of America.
Laun insists there's a new breed of mini-golfer out there, beyond the adorable tots and irony-seeking Gen-Xers. The windmills and wigwams are still around, but modern mini courses are more likely to look like scaled-down models of Pebble Beach than Kmart versions of Disneyland. "The courses that have started coming up since the mid-'80s are really very challenging," enthuses Laun, "with undulations and contours that lend themselves to more skilled putting rather than luck."
Nobody needs to tell the pros that if you're going to play a serious game, you can't be teeing off into a doll house. So does this mean our mini golf innocence is soon to be so much water under the itty bitty drawbridge? While there are not as yet any Nike ads featuring sweaty mini-golfers grunting and puking as they swing across their teeny holes, that day may soon be upon us. "Our association has over 40,000 players all over the world," boasts Laun, "and some of them are making upward of $1,500 playing in a single weekend." That's a considerable step up from the free game tokens and troll dolls normally accepted as the primo booty for beating par at the local family fun center.
That kind of lucre still doesn't approach what Tiger Woods gets for putting on his hat in the morning, or what the less-talented pros get for failing to make the cut in this week's PGA Championship. It doesn't matter. As with all true artists, the great ones aren't in it for abundant riches. Before miniature golf entered his life, says mini golf iron man Elmer Lawson, "Most of the time I was busy working or sleeping. This way I get out to see the world."
Lawson had played regular-style golf for years, but it was at his local Redding, Pa., miniature golf course that he first heard the siren song of the putter. He was drawn by the glamour. He was drawn by the excitement. He was drawn by the chance to win a gift certificate to the local mall. "I saw they were offering prizes, and it cost only 10 bucks to enter the tournament," he explains. "Basically, you had nothing to lose." From then on, the plastic windmills of his mind were set inexorably in motion. In his first competition, Lawson finished fourth. It was a heady brush with the leader board.
Before he knew it, Lawson had entered a milieu in which he could play an entire game in less time than it takes to do a load of laundry, where he was rapidly racking up vouchers for his local shopping megaplex. More important, he was no longer just Elmer Lawson, coating technician for the local lock manufacturer, he was Elmer Lawson, internationally ranked miniature golf player. He went on to bigger tournaments in his home state, then on to the nationals in Florida and, eventually, all the way to a global level championship in Denmark last year. This season, Elmer's lined up a rigorous schedule of traveling the circuit that will take him to such exotic outposts of mini golf action as Portugal and Switzerland.
Tom Dixon too can testify to the excitement of the mini golf circuit -- and this is a man who knows from thrills. "I used to be a rodeo rider," says the 44-year-old Kansas City cowboy. "I rode bareback for 10 years. I kept getting hurt so many times I had to retire." It was during those halcyon days that Dixon discovered the joy of mini golf. He had survived wild horses, but could he conquer the rough and tumble world of diminutive driving? The answer, unequivocally, was yes. Now Dixon divides his time between trucking and working the lucrative pro mini-golf circuit. He's a bona fide star of the miniature golf hierarchy, a man whose picture has been on the cover of European magazines and who has ranked No. 1 in the U.S. two years in a row.
But the Astroturfed road to mini glory is laden with sand traps. The PGA teems with superstars, deep-pocketed sponsors and die-hard fans. Miniature golf does not. While the charms of this genteel recreation might float with the Swiss, any athletic endeavor in the U.S. with the word "mini" remains a mighty tough sell. Overseas, the game is played with white knuckle concentration on impeccable, bonsai sized lawns. In our land, the sport is still often played within putting distance of the change machines.
But if people want to laugh at what Lawson does with his free time, "I just tell them they can play me whenever they want to and I'll beat them. People think you just go up there and hit the ball, but you've got to know how to line it up. It's a science." That understanding is starting to take root. "More Americans played miniature golf last year than went camping," chirps Deborah Paulk, editor of the brand new Golf & Family Fun magazine.
The image boost has been helped along in no small part by ESPN, the network that has broadened the definition of what constitutes "sports" to include cheerleading championships, tree cutting competitions and something known officially as swamp buggy races. Miniature golf tournaments have been airing regularly on the network for five years now, and while they probably don't generate the same excitement as Fitness Beach, they do garner consistently high ratings among families. This season, viewers can expect more high voltage action, culminating in September with the newly inaugurated American Masters Miniature Golf Championship. Though the very word "Masters" suggests a final nail in the funhouse coffin of old-school miniature golf, the game still retains a few of its arcade trappings. The Florida course where part of the tournament will be held features a smoking, steaming, belching artificial volcano that erupts every 15 minutes. If you're going, plan your shots accordingly.
Though it now has its own Masters Tournament and international celebrity circuit, the legends of mini golf know they haven't quite broken the big time yet. But they're ready. "They've made movies of the characters from NASCAR racing," says Tom Dixon. "Why can't they do that with miniature golf?" Still, even if Tom Cruise does for miniature golfers what Billy Bob Thornton did for simple-minded homicidal maniacs, the real players will remain humble. Lawson probably still won't need a caddy. After all, he says, "I only got three clubs."