Road Game

Putt-Putt: a miniature obsession

By Bill Fields

I’ve gotten to interview some of the greats of golf, stars whose names will resonate as long as the game is played — golfers like Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer. Once, I even got to fly into the Moore County Airport on a jet Palmer was piloting. There might not be any cheering in the press box, but that was cool.

A few years ago, it was a thrill to talk with Rick Baird, John Napoli and Rick Smith.

You probably don’t recognize the latter trio or know why I would have been interested in learning their stories. But for someone who loved Putt-Putt the way I did as a kid — despite not getting to play very often — speaking with those putting legends was as good as it gets, the opposite of the feeling when your colored ball disappeared down the chute on the last hole.

Baird and Napoli are two of only three people to shoot an 18 in a Putt-Putt competition, making a 1 on each of the approximately 30-foot putts. (By comparison, there have been 23 perfect games pitched in Major League Baseball.) Smith was one of the best putters in the heyday of the Professional Putters Association. A teen phenom, he won world titles in 1969 and 1972 and was so skilled with his center-shafted blade that Don Clayton, who opened the first Putt-Putt course in Fayetteville in 1954, nicknamed him “The Ace Machine.”

I’m pretty sure my family believed I got a bit too excited about miniature golf, particularly when I wouldn’t budge from the couch when the Putt-Putt televised series, Parade of Champions, was on Sunday mornings. Smith, Vance Randall, John Connor and the other pros showed that Sam Jones had nothing on them when it came to bank shots. They just made theirs wearing dress loafers.

I was usually in flip-flops while trying to imitate the putting pros — open stance like Smith or closed stance like Randall? — on vacation in Ocean Drive, South Carolina, where I looked forward to the beachside Putt-Putt course more than Hoskins’ flounder or Sno-Cones. One of the other kids going round and round those same 18 holes was none other than Rick Baird. About 40 years later, he shot his “Perfect 18” at a tournament in Richmond, Virginia.

My marathon Putt-Putt days occurred while spending a summer week with my sister in High Point, where there was a 36-hole facility on North Main Street. It was three bucks for as much as you wanted to play on a weekday. Practice didn’t make perfect by any means, but I occasionally broke 30, convinced I would have scored better if I had splurged on an official “steel center” PPA ball. Truer roll, and all that.

Young nerves went a long way on those surfaces. Putt-Putt carpets aren’t as fast now because the specific material isn’t manufactured, but back then they were closer to linoleum than Bermuda overseeded with rye. On a real course, I never played on anything approaching Putt-Putt speed until the mid-1970s on the well-manicured bentgrass surfaces at Quail Ridge in Sanford.

I was not a miniature golf snob, happily going to Jungle Golf or Wacky Golf or whatever other names the places with dinosaurs, rhinos and windmills on Highway 17 in Myrtle Beach were called. My parents and sisters indulged me and played too, although I think they tried to pretend they didn’t know me on the occasions I insisted on using my own putter rather than one of the loaners.

My mother relished her holes-in-one, all the more if I had recently critiqued her grip as better suited for a broom handle than a golf club. She was not a great putter but a very good sport, joining Dad and me at the South of the Border miniature golf course, the round a consolation prize on a desultory ride home from a thwarted trip to the beach. All the motel rooms on the Grand Strand were filled by bikers, which sabotaged our spur-of-the-moment attempt at a long weekend.

On Mom’s 80th birthday trip, a long time since we had done so, we had a game at the beach. I asked a stranger to take a snapshot. We are standing next to a giant plastic flamingo, colored balls in our hands and smiles on our faces.  PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.

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