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Goofy golf

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.

The Coit Road course is well known among the Putt-Putt cognoscenti as one of the most difficult in the state because of this constant addition of new dents, gouges, scrapes, and bubble-gum stains.

"Let me tell you, this course changes more than most--it changes day to day," Smith says. "I can literally come out here and play a shot, and tomorrow it will be different. These kids out here are pretty aggressive."

So Smith sets about finding a new way to ace Hole 13, aiming at various dents and marks up and down the right rail. A fiberglass elephant atop the gray Putt-Putt mountain keeps watch over his earnest work.

A trim, athletic man whose curly brown hair is receding somewhat, Smith makes no excuses for his infatuation with what most people perceive to be game for children, or adolescent dates.

"You say you're a professional putter, and people give you that look of disbelief. They think you're joking," says Smith, who in his day job as general manager of Dallas Pest and Termite Services' Carrollton office oversees 75 bug-killing employees.

An easygoing, highly personable sort, Smith does everything he can to explain how the game works at this level, and why someone might ever want to put this kind of time and effort into it.

As a high school senior in suburban Glencoe, Illinois, Smith saw his first Grateful Dead concert at Chicago's Uptown Theater on January 31, 1978. He returned the next night and the next, and in the following few years followed the band to nearly 70 shows.

His Putt-Putt story develops along similar lines.
Smith was on his sofa one Saturday afternoon in 1989 when a Putt-Putt tournament came on cable TV. A skillful golfer with a low, single-digit handicap, he had played a few rounds of miniature golf in Chicago as a kid, but this somehow grabbed him. He wandered over to the recently built Coit Road course that afternoon, and happened to meet Rainey Statum, one of the guys in the televised tournament. Statum, a Houston-area player, told him about a little local event going on at a course in Mesquite the next day. Smith played in five other amateur events that year.

The next year he joined the pros. The PPA invites the 50 or so top players in the country to join, and collects a $500 annual fee. Another 200 proficient players are considered to be regional pros.

So far, Smith says, he's earned about $9,000 in prize money, with his best showing in the Texas state championship--in a state ranking second to North Carolina for its number of courses. About 40 serious players competed in the state event, for which he won $1,500.

During the 1995 championship at his home course on Coit Road, he aced 21 of 32 holes en route to the $1,500 first prize. In 1996, he successfully defended his title against 40 other players in Wichita Falls, acing nine in a row at one point.

A local putter manufacturer, Traxx Golf Company, has begun providing him clubs.

"He's very good, but they're good all over. I wish the ball would fall for him more often when he goes and plays for the big bucks in Orlando and places like that," says his wife, Iris Davila, who married Smith three years ago this October.

They had already been dating for a few years when Smith took up the game, she says. He doesn't ease up a bit when they play together. "He takes it seriously," she says.

It's been said that most women don't understand pro Putt-Putt--only one of the 46 national pros is a woman--and Davila says she can see why.

"He spends a lot of time at it," she says, hesitating ever so slightly. "But it's his thing. It's harmless. I mean, he could be hanging out in a bar."

Putt-Putt purists will tell you their game differs from other types of miniature golf because there is no room for luck. There are no windmill spokes to shoot between, no brontosaurus mouths opening and closing, no live bears swiping at balls.  

Putt-Putt courses are made up of 18 of the 188 hole designs the company has copyrighted. Although Putt-Putt layouts offered windmill holes, skeet-ball target holes, loop-de-loops, and other doo-dads in the 1950s and '60s, today the courses are laid out with geometric precision in an attempt to reward the same skills possessed by traditional golf pros. The windmills and mock safari animals are placed off to the side.

Of course, it remains a form of miniature golf, and as such its roots reach deep into a weird, all-but-forgotten chapter in the history of fads: the year America went loco for miniature golf.

As John Margolies recounts in his book Miniature Golf (fittingly bound in a shaggy chunk of Astroturf), James Barber designed the first bantam golf course in 1916 on the lawn of his estate in Pinehurst, North Carolina. The game gathered little popular appeal until 1929, when a Tennessee family patented something called Tom Thumb golf and built their first course at Lookout Mountain, the eternally cheesy resort. The now-gone Tom Thumbs were little enclosed courses covered with artificial turf, much like miniature golf courses today.

Within a year, this novel pastime exploded, taking its place behind dance marathons and hot-dog-eating contests as one of the zaniest fads of the era, and perhaps the biggest of them all. People called it "The Madness of 1930."

In that single year, more than 25,000 courses sprang up across the country, including more than 150 on New York City rooftops. People poured so much leisure time into the game that Hollywood studios ordered their stars to stay off the mini-links. The game was so big, they found, it was starting to hurt box-office receipts, which were down 25 percent that year.

The courses were wild. A layout in Los Angeles called Caliente worked around a natural geyser that shot steam 100 feet in the air. Mary Pickford, the screen actress, opened a course shaded by surreal, Max Ernst-inspired fake palms. Another L.A. course boasted a live bear chained at the edge of the runway who swiped at passing balls. Bobby Jones, the grown-up golf great of the era, gave putting tips on his weekly radio show, while "I've Gone Goofy Over Miniature Golf" became one of the year's most popular songs.

Referring to the onset of the Great Depression that year, humorist Will Rogers said, "There's millions got a putter in their hand when they ought to have a shovel."

By the end of the year, though, mini-golf crashed harder than disco. It didn't come back until an insurance salesman named Don Clayton arrived two decades later and became the Ray Kroc of putting. In 1954, Clayton laid out a version of the game in his home town of Fayetteville, North Carolina. As the story goes, he called it Putt-Putt, because he wasn't sure how to spell the word "vale" in Shady Vale Golf.

The game boomed with post-war suburbanization, sprouting up next to fast-food franchises and strip shopping centers. Today, Putt-Putt is global. There are 18 courses in Japan; one in Beirut; and one overlooking Krakatoa on the Bay of Java.

To underline his vision of the game as a thing of skill, Clayton started the PPA tour in 1959. "Our putters are great athletes and great men," said Clayton, who died last year at age 70. "We have made competition out of a thing that was recreational. I believe this is the kind of drive and commitment that made this country great."

There is more than one way to cash in on today's Putt-Putt tour--although Putt headquarters is far from thrilled about all the informal betting going on around its events.

The biggest money changes hands in "the Calcutta," a country-club betting game in which each player is auctioned to the highest bidder. The bidders who own the win-place-show finishers collect a piece of the betting kitty. At the 1996 Texas state championship, Smith bought himself with a $70 bid. He collected about $600 when he won.

Then there are the "pot games."
Because each course plays differently, players will arrive one or two days before a tournament and learn how the ball will roll. As Smith puts it, "Courses are tougher, better, fairer, faster, slower--they are all different."

During the endless hours of practice before tournaments, seven or eight players will gather and play the field for $2 a hole, per player. If you're at the head of the pack, or the end, you can win or lose as much as $100 a round.

"Guys out there like to turn it up," says David Lynch, a 46-year-old security guard from Mesquite who is one of four North Texans on the national tour. "It can get expensive."  

Lynch, who has worked around the Mesquite Putt-Putt on and off for the past 10 years, was at that course on a recent Tuesday night, playing in a very tough small-stakes match against Smith and about a dozen others. The money was put up by the players.

Set in a parking lot beside a bland, lunch-box-shaped clubhouse, the Mesquite course is as cheerless as these little artificial worlds get.

"I bleed orange and green," Lynch says, referring to the ubiquitous Putt-Putt colors. A pear-shaped guy in wrap-around sunglasses and a Putt-Putt cap, he says he's been getting more time to practice since his divorce, to which his devotion to the game contributed.

"She said it was a kids' game," Lynch says. "When I worked here, she said it was a kid's job."

Betting aside, the only way to break even or make money as a pro, after expenses, is to move up among the top handful of players nationwide, Lynch says. And only one Dallas-area player has ever done that.

"People stop sniggering when I tell them I earned $75,000 playing Putt-Putt," says Marc Portugal, a 34-year-old marketing operations manager who grew up playing in Waco. Competing at the top levels since he was 16, Portugal has been "on TV" five times and has won the game's national championship twice.

These days, three players make each of the three televised rounds--which pay players $500 or $1,000 per hole in a head-to-head competition carried on ESPN. The nine players are selected in a variety of ways: by winning one of several national tournaments, by being one of the top players throughout the season, or by winning a qualifying tournament.

The national championship, a $20,000 event capping the season, is held in September. It pays $3,000 to the winner.

Jeffery Smith talks about this "next level" as he prowls his dwarfish golf course, showing a visitor how the big boys play. Dressed in a Putt-Putt shirt, with a folded towel and PPA tag dangling from his belt, he looks, well, professional.

He'd play and practice even more, he says, but spring is termite season, and he is busy on his job.

Smith bounces his ball twice off the rubber tee mat before he places it in one of seven indentations, then seeks his aiming mark. "I have to know where I'm aiming. I just don't feel my way around like some of these guys," he says.

Smith becomes so absorbed in his target that when an 8-year-old named Zeke runs up and stands only a foot behind him, breathing hard and talking, he doesn't move a millimeter from his shoulder-square stance.

He is thinking more about such things as wind--which pushes a ball down the carpet more quickly at Hole 3, the one that runs under the concrete mountain and past the waterfall. Temperature, too, enters the calculus. A ball will bounce a bit more off a hot side rail than a cold one.

In a round that takes less than a half hour, Smith aces nine holes with a repertoire of straight shots, elaborate triple-banks, and "touch" putts that pass the hole, bounce off the back rail, and drop in "the back door."

Hole 12 he conquers with a screaming shot that hits a concrete wedge, squirts straight left, bounces off a rail, hits another concrete wedge, and dives into the hole.

Even the sinister Hole 13 yields an ace--one bounce off the right rail. He gets 2's on the rest, for a round of 27.

"The key for me is concentration. I need to improve my mental game," Smith explains after the 18th hole, which he stuffs with his towel so his white PPA ball doesn't get gobbled up like everyone else's.

"I made nine in a row the year I won here," he says. "You get on a roll. You're feeling like you can't miss. You hear basketball players or other athletes getting in a zone. A Putt-Putt putter can too." Facing back toward his Zen garden of a golf course, club in hand, he concludes, "I'm looking for my zone.


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