Crouching down, his hand resting against the top of his club, the golfer eyes the terrain, noting the contour of the ground as it banks toward the hole. He stands. Takes a couple of practice swings. Steps forward. With his shot lined up, he hits the white-dimpled ball with his putter. It rolls along the turf, curving on an invisible path before teetering on the edge of the cup. It drops in. As though celebrating the moment, a 12-metre-high fibreglass volcano, once slumbering in the background, erupts in fake fury. This is minigolf. And, in Myrtle Beach, this is big sport.

Photograph by Jared Sych.

Set on South Carolina’s 97 kilometres of beaches, the city of Myrtle Beach is a draw for swimmers, sunloungers and surfers. When the thrill of the water and white sand subsides, the fun moves to the greens. The Myrtle Beach area is home to about 50 (and counting) minigolf courses. Call it what you want—putt-putt, crazy golf or mini-putt—this city’s minigolf scene is a lucrative business.

Mt. Atlanticus Minotaur Golf, photograph by Jared Sych.

“Myrtle Beach [is] such a fun place to play [for] the sheer variety of courses,” says Pennsylvania-based pro minigolfer Brad Lebo, who competes in 40 to 50 tournaments a year and has earned almost US$160,000 in prize money throughout his career. “They put a lot into course design and maintenance, it’s a matter of pride.”

Each October, players from all over the world flock to Myrtle Beach for the United States ProMiniGolf Association Master’s, a three-day tournament with a cash purse of US$20,000. The Master’s is played at three local courses—Aloha Mini Golf, Hawaiian Rumble and Hawaiian Village—all of which are owned by Bob Detwiler, who started the tournament 23 years ago and is the chief executive officer of the association. “Back then, I had no idea it would get this big. The first tournament had 15 people, this year we are expecting between 80 to 100 competitors,” says Detwiler, who was inducted into the Pro Mini Golf Hall of Fame in 2017.

Captain Hook’s Adventure Golf, photograph by Jared Sych.

Minigolf pro and Team USA’s Paula Gay, of Augusta, Ga., says there is a misconception this sport is only something you putt around with on vacation. “People are always surprised to learn that, when I go to these tournaments, I practise eight to 10 hours a day,” she says. “You have to learn each course and know your deuce shot. We chart the courses ahead of time, just like [regular] golf professionals. There’s a lot of skill involved.”

On a circuit where most players hover around retirement age, Olivia Prokopová is an anomaly. The 24 year old travels regularly from her home in the Czech Republic to compete at tournaments across the U.S. “Myrtle Beach is my second home because it is a minigolf heaven and I love the courses there,” she says. “The players are one big happy family. We have so much fun together.”

Professor Hacker’s Dinosaur Adventure, photograph by Jared Sych.

The purse for the Master’s is undoubtedly a draw, but, for many competitors, the prestige of winning the green blazer, signifying dominance in this niche sport, is also a driving factor. While the vibe at the minigolf courses in Myrtle Beach is fun—as you’d hope when putting next to an animatronic, roaring dinosaur—there are tournament rules in place that include guidelines for professional behaviour, an anti-doping clause and equipment requirements. Still, Detwiler adds, you can play with a corn cob as a putter if you want. You just need to use the balls provided.

Hawaiian Rumble Adventure Golf, photograph by Jared Sych.

Players have been known to lose it on the course, even to the point of snapping their putters in frustration. However, Lebo says this is extreme behaviour. “We’re finicky about our equipment, the specs and the weight of the putters, so if you broke it, that would be an issue,” says the professional.

If you fancy your chances, Detwiler says all ages and levels are welcome to play in the Master’s, as even pro minigolf is for everyone. “You don’t have to be super strong, or tall, or fast. You have to be able to line the ball up and make a good putt,” he says.

4 Minigolf Champions to Know

Bob Detwiler at Hawaiian Rumble Adventure Golf, photograph by Jared Sych.

The Originator: Bob Detwiler

Bob Detwiler owns some of Myrtle Beach’s top minigolf courses and started the United States ProMiniGolf Association (USPGMA) Master’s tournament. He used to compete professionally for Team USA and is now retired.

The Hotshot: Brad Lebo

Turning professional in 1991, a year after graduating from dental school, Brad Lebo has won 124 pro minigolf tournaments, including the USPMGA Master’s in 2008.

The Prodigy: Olivia Prokopová

Olivia Prokopová played her first US Open Mini Golf Tournament in 2002 at the age of seven. She has won both the US Open and Master’s, along with the World Crazy Golf Championships in 2013. Prokopová coaches Team USA.

The Heir: Paula Gay

Fitting minigolf around family obligations, Paula Gay has played professionally on-and-off since the 1970s, following in the footsteps of her National Putt-Putt Champion father, Tracy Moore.

[This story appears in the August 2019 edition of WestJet Magazine.]