Goofy golf

Out among the fiberglass elephants, Putt-Putt pro Jeffery Smith searches for his zone

In Far North Dallas, just up from the Whataburger and the Just Brakes and the Blue Star miniwarehouses, Jeffery Smith is wandering with his putter among the plastic zebras, dreaming little dreams.

Sure, his sport holds about as much cachet as indoor roller-skating, or bumper pool, or lawn darts. "It's easy to be pretty good," as one miniature golf authority has said. "It's stupid to be very good."

But Smith, a former Deadhead who earlier this year had a pair of crossed putters and an ace of clubs tattooed on his left leg in a display of similar dedication, wants to be more than very good. He dreams of the perfect game. Of getting on TV. Of winning $1,000 a hole in this year's glorious, ultimate round.

People will get hooked on just about anything.
So here he is, banging putt after putt down the synthetic green carpet of Hole 13, Course 2. "This," the 37-year-old exterminating company manager says with easy authority, "is the hardest hole at Coit Road Putt-Putt."

It would be foolish to argue with the man who holds the course records on all three of this Putt-Putt's pint-sized 18-hole tracks--an 11-under-par 25 on Course 2, a 13-under-par 23 on Course 1, and a 14-under-par 22 on Course 3. "I know every inch of it," says Smith, who is among 46 players in the Professional Putters Association, a creation of Putt-Putt Golf and Games, a $100 million-a-year franchising operation covering 246 courses, most in the Southeast and Midwest.

The PPA is about as far down the golf food chain from Tiger Woods as one can go. Still, the competition is brutal. The pro circuit is crowded with Putt-Putt virtuosos from proving grounds like Danville, Virginia; Pineville, North Carolina; Duluth, Georgia; and Kingwood, Texas.

Smith, the defending Texas state champion--he won in 1995 and 1996--is trying "to move up to the next level" this season and begin winning some of the tour's 11 national events.

Getting that good may be stupid, but there is something in it that is at once addictive and painfully difficult. "I've heard players call it M.F.G.," Smith says. "Miniature fucking golf."

Smith is a man among children as he puts in his four hours of practice on a suburban Saturday morning--one of the three sessions a week he spends working on his game or playing competitively. Around him, birthday parties and kiddie outings meander through the pygmy-proportioned courses, which together with bumper boats, go-carts, batting cages, and a roomful of video games constitute Coit Road Putt-Putt and Games. A temporary sign on the front fence promises: "Laser Tag Coming Soon."

Smith's present concern, the malevolent Hole 13, doesn't look all that tough in the hands of a knot of 8-year-olds playing in the group ahead of him. From the rubber tee box, they whack their balls every which way, screaming them down the orange aluminum side rails en route to scores of 3 or 4. One kid, wearing a Goofy T-shirt, finishes out by plopping on his belly, aiming the butt of his putter like a pool stick, and popping his red ball in the cup with a jab.

The way Smith sees things, it's as if there is another Hole 13 out there, existing in a parallel universe--a multifold and sometimes inscrutable place where speed, angles, gravity, even wind and temperature, play their parts. It is a lilliputian world in which all-but-imperceptible marks in the green polypropylene carpet, or dents along the rails, mark imaginary lines along which a perfectly stroked putt will travel and drop in the cup in a single stroke.

In serious Putt-Putt, players want to ace them all--a feat that has been accomplished only twice in competition. A two is par. "When you ace six or more, you have a round going," Smith says.

Hole 13 comes in the shape of a long rectangle at the tee box-end, connecting to a square. The metal cup is located just right of the middle of the square, about 20 feet from the tee.

To trick things up, a foot-tall hump cuts across the rectangle at an angle. Beyond that, the area around the hole tilts slightly from the player's right to left--the consequence of settling cement at the 8-year-old course.

Put it all together, and a ball struck straight at the hole curves left, then right, then left again before it reaches the hole.

"There is something about the carpet now that's messed up my shot," Smith says, referring to the one-bounce-on-the-right-rail strategy that has served him well in the past.

Now, though, his ball is hitting the right rail once before the hump, then skimming along and hitting it again on the far side, sending it wide of the hole. "It's only supposed to bounce once," he says.

When his ball rolls to a stop more than five feet left of the hole, making for a tough second shot, Smith moans. "Not there. When you end up over there, you're hating life."

The reasons behind the changing conditions that have Smith in a momentary funk are all around him. The North Dallas-Richardson-Plano kids that plunk down their $5 to play a round here are a notoriously free-swinging lot--as evidenced by the dozens of red, yellow, and orange balls in the fake alligator-infested lagoons that run between the holes. "You have to hit it pretty hard to get off the course into there," says Smith, stating the obvious.

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