The bar is relatively low for becoming a professional miniature golfer, admittedly, but it’s a sport that still drives big crowds and big stars from halfway around the world. The U.S. ProMiniGolf Association helps keep it in full swing in America.
Matt McCaslin of Holly Springs, North Carolina, has a fresh claim to fame. On Saturday, the golfer won a nail-biter at a New Jersey course, beating out a major star from the Czech Republic.
The best part? He needed only one kind of club—a putter.
McCaslin is the 2014 U.S. Open Miniature Golf Tournament champion, swinging past a field of professionals and amateurs on his way to victory. The Bluegrass Mini Golf Course in Oceanport, New Jersey, is just one stop on the tour, and the champion he beat is Olivia Prokopova, who won the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association’s (USPMGA) three major tournaments last year. Thanks to McCaslin, she won’t repeat the feat for a second year in a row.
A Sport, Organized
So what goes into a professional sports association for mini golf, anyway? Glad you asked. The sport has a century-long history, dating back to a game called Gofstacle, first conceived and patented by British army Col. William Senhouse Clarke in 1907. While mini golf had an early surge in U.S. popularity in the 1920s, during the Great Depression the sport became a bigger hit in Europe. In the 1950s and ’60s, mini golf made an American comeback as courses became more standardized and novel, with landscaping turning into an elaborate addition.
USPMGA, the only American member of the World MiniGolf Sports Federation governing body, has been around for two decades. Since its launch by one-time tennis coach Bob Detwiler in 1994, the organization has played a role in designing some of the sport’s most elaborate courses, such as Hawaiian Rumble, a volcano-laden course that also doubles as the sport’s training center.
Along with mini golf’s growth as an organized sport comes the rise of professional players. While the cash purses don’t compare to those pocketed by golfers in the PGA or similar leagues (McCaslin took home a modest $3,500 for topping the competition on Saturday), there are benefits for amateurs who think they can compete with bigger-name stars. For example, those who wanted to take part in the U.S. Open paid around $100 to get a spot on the greens—a lot cheaper than the PGA, where one 2012 estimate put the cost around $1,200 per tournament.
“You just pay your entry fee,” tournament director Carol Newman told The New York Times. “We tell them what’s going on and who’s playing, and then they decide what they can handle.”
And becoming a “professional” is cheap, too: Membership in the association is $25.
A Celebrity In Her Own Country
And much like sports media’s constant obsession with Tiger Woods, all eyes were on Prokopova in recent days.
She’s been training for her offbeat career path since age 3 and relies on sponsorships and exhibition fees to pay the bills. Prokopova stands out among the competitors at tournaments, which are often filled with middle-aged men. And when she returns to the Czech Republic, she’s treated as a major celebrity—even though miniature golf isn’t widely followed in the country.
“She has been on television, in the newspapers,” her trainer and assistant, Ales Vlk, told the Times. “She has twice met the president of the Czech Republic. Seventeen thousand people in a square applauded her.”
That’s better than a lot of players get, as it turns out. Brad Lebo, the 2010 U.S. Open winner, says his chosen hobby doesn’t always lead to compliments.
“People I play golf with are either intrigued, or they mock me hysterically,” he told the Times.