The Masters of Miniature Golf
Miniature golf is its own sport and it goes way deeper than you think.
Photo by B. David Zarley
This article originally appeared in Sept. 2014
The Grand Strand strip of South Carolina is home to more than 500 holes of miniature golf, and in Myrtle Beach (OK, technically North Myrtle Beach) you can find the miniature golf course: Hawaiian Rumble, the host of the United States ProMiniGolf Association (USPMGA) Masters.
The course is an ode to the North American adventure golf model: Miniature golf with maximalist aesthetics, the perfect conflation of sport, art, and camp.
These are not the staid holes which define the dreary, predictable Euro-style putt putt courses, which are ruled by trigonometric geniuses. The American, adventure-style miniature golf game trades such obvious nuances in strategy for, well, adventure. Melodramatic, baroque, bordering on pornographic, with themes like pirates, Polynesia, and prehistory. The courses wind through air conditioned volcanoes or Mayan step pyramids or the rolling hills of Eden or hysterically faux-realistic landscapes of grass green carpeting and water that runs an electric shade of blue—both too blue and too green for anywhere but an adventure golf course. This is the aesthetic of Hawaiian Rumble and its owner, Bob Detwiler.
Detwiler is also the founder and president of the USPMGA as well as the American representative on the board of directors of the World MiniGolf Federation, which makes him the steward of America's rising professional miniature golf scene. Still, he understands who keeps miniature golf courses open.
"It's a family destination for vacations, and people look for things to do," Detwiler says. "Of course they come here for the ocean, number one, and then—after they get sunburnt, they can't stand out there on the beach much longer—then they start looking for other things to do. And miniature golf happens to be one thing that the family can do together."
Detwiler looks pretty much exactly how one would imagine a pro miniature golf tour founder would look, if one can imagine such a thing. Sitting in his office he sports a hat bearing the Augusta-aping logo of his baby, Hawaiian Rumble's own USPMGA Masters. The logo is a yellow South Carolina map with green outline and a flag sitting approximately in our current location, North Myrtle Beach.
"Ted started the green jacket idea," for the Masters winners, he tells me. Ted being his son, who is joining us, fresh of the beach in festival chic dark tank top, shorts, and Kalashnikov emblazoned DEFEND hat. "It's the most coveted thing. They want, more than the prize money, they want that green jacket."
Surely Augusta had something to say?
"I've had several calls from them," he laughs.
The Masters has become one of the most prestigious miniature golf competitions in the world. With the locus of the sport's talent and popularity in Europe—primarily Germany, the Czech Republic, and Sweden—the Masters has a distinctly international bent, especially as hopefuls arrive from their home countries with coteries of coaches, physios, and even embedded journalists.
Detwiler, however, sees the future of the sport in the North American adventure golf model. "At first, they [the putt putt traditionalists] thought it was a joke," he says. "Now, so many come here, and they realize that actually this is harder than theirs, because theirs, every hole, like billiards, is the same. You know exactly where you have to hit it to get a hole in one.
You come here, like Hawaiian Rumble, and you're on an adventure; you're walking through a Hawaiian garden, with a 40-foot volcano in the middle shooting fire out the top, sloping on the sides, rumbling and it shakes the ground and if they don't change, start doing what we're doing, they're going to be down the tubes."
The USPMGA's efforts to legitimize a sensationally difficult contest add a layer to the stratosphere of South Carolina miniature golf kingdom, to be sure. But still, the buffet of wonders along King's Highway was not served to quench the appetites of the front-nine-single-digit-shooting Euro pros. The genesis, as Detwlier sees it—and he has been here from the beginning—goes back to that sun-reddened family.
"There's very few things that families can do together right now," he says. "Not only that, they feel like they are playing a sport. They feel like they're actually Tiger Woods out there playing, and they like that. They get a hole in one and they feel like they won the US Open, or the Masters."
Of all the camp colossi and the decadent playing fields, Mt. Atlanticus Minotaur Golf stands out in equal proportion to Hawaiian Rumble. Towering multiple stories above Kings Highway and Eighth Avenue, its summit is marked by a flaming torch of Olympic proportions. From its upper reaches, one can gaze out upon the Atlantic, and be swallowed by the expanse.
I am here with my parents, of course, our annual adventure spent exploring the lost civilization armed only with our wits and our camaraderie.
There are few sounds more satisfying than the plink of my tiny black ball falling into the cup; especially sweet after taking a bold risk. I hit a hole in one and celebrate as if crushing the Amen Corner and then trade strokes with my father before losing on a fatal four stroke effort.
As we play, it is obvious that what sets adventure golf apart is that the game is not just a battle against texture and geometry, but a battle with context, theme, artistry, and concept. You against dinosaurs or tropical disaster or mythology and, crucially, your family, friends, or date.
Failing miserably on our 19th hole attempt—the 19th is a brutal, razor thin peninsula wherein a lifetime pass is the prize for a hole in one—we placed, as we have for the better part of two decades, our putters upon the exit table. Walking past us, another family picked them up, heading towards an adventure of their own.
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