In Fayetteville, N.C., Raymond Floyd, who is a home-town boy and also the PGA champion, has become a big, blond afterthought. He's never home much anymore, for one thing, and he doesn't play the right game, either. 'Ole Raymond, big and blond and ha-el raiser that he is, does not play Putt-Putt.
But some 12 million other people do every year, in 300 towns in 42 states and 13 foreign countries. And the thing is—let's be quite frank about this to all those who have never known the thrill of winning a free pass at Putt-Putt by scoring a hole in one with the yellow ball when the yellow light goes, or with the blue ball when the blue light goes or with the red ball or the green—Fayetteville is where the game of Putt-Putt is really at.
Putt-Putt, the only sophisticated form of miniature golf yet invented, is a $15 million business, and last week the results of all of this expansion and all of this money were on display just off a parking lot near downtown Fayetteville where 128 men—promoted as "The World's Greatest Putters"—gathered to compete for $110,000 in the first annual world putting championship.
George Archer didn't make it, and neither did Billy Casper or the rest of those guys. Your country club champion didn't make it, either. But Ron Dubinsky was there, and Webb DiGenova was and Howell Sherrod and Woodie Pritchett and Kamal Harchaoui. And so was Ricky Smith, a pudgy-cheeked 20-year-old Purdue University sophomore. Smith made 13 consecutive holes in one to set a record in his first-round match and then, three days later, scored 12 aces in 16 holes as he defeated mustachioed Gary Love 4 and 2 to capture the $15,000 first prize. Smith, who is referred to as The Ace Machine by his compatriots and Rocket ("I'm never short") by himself, caught the mumps last month but, after laying off the Putt-Putt course for two weeks, practiced eight hours a day every day until he "got the stroke back" and, last Saturday, won his prize.
It wasn't a prior commitment that kept the Archers and Caspers away from challenging Smith in a pastime in which one might consider them to be expert. It was just that they aren't qualified. The field in Fayetteville was made up of members of the Professional Putters Association, a subsidiary of an organization that has franchised its Putt-Putt game into an exploding financial bonanza throughout the world.
They are men who don't putt on grass but on carpets. They don't read the carpets but memorize them. They don't stroke the ball so much as they bang, angle and ricochet it off boards and through pipes to get it into the cup. They are men—in the storied tradition of pathfinders, deerslayers and boccie aficionados—who dwell on the outskirts of sport, breathe the musty air of anonymity and search for recognition in the darkest of corners. PPA members are identified only by the names and cities on their shirts, and they are forced always to answer such questions as, "Putt-Putt? What are you, motorboat guys?"
Miniature golf came to this country from Scotland in the 1920s and was an immediate national craze. The courses were sometimes called "Tom Thumbs" then, and they were very In places with the flapper crowd, including that old putting fool Rudolph Valentino. When the great crash came, the popularity of miniature golf dwindled, and it wasn't until a generation later that Don Clayton, an insurance salesman from Fayetteville, was able to revive it.
In 1954 Clayton remembers building his first course over a period of 21 days, getting back his full investment of $5,500 in 29 days and, on that last evening, watching in awe as a prominent Fayetteville attorney stood in line for 45 minutes to play his new and wonderful game of Putt-Putt.
After expanding his franchises several years later, Clayton supervised a program of amateur tournaments around the country. When the popularity of these events increased and awards began taking the form of expensive automobiles, he decided to make his men professionals. In 1959 the PPA was formed "to recognize, develop and reward the skills and abilities of America's putters." There have been small tours in each of the PPA's four regions every year since, culminating this summer in more than sixty $1,000 tournaments across the land (including three major events, the National Championship, the Northern Open and the Southern Open) which served as qualifying tests for the world tournament.
Clayton's philosophy of miniature golf is revealed in the design of his courses, which are contemptuous of those everyday dinosaur-mouth, elephant-foot gag holes. "I did not want to simply amuse people with giraffes and windmills," he says. "I wanted something that pitted man against man, to challenge the athletic ability of the competitor. On a regular miniature golf course a child could beat Jack Nicklaus if the ball goes in the right leg of the kangaroo. Not so in Putt-Putt. Our putters are great athletes and great men. We have made competition out of a thing that was recreational. I believe this is the type of drive and commerce that made this country so great. The capitalistic system is a fantastic, wonderful invention, the genius of this nation that made us what we are today. I can't say enough for America and for Putt-Putt. To know that millions of people go out and play my game of Putt-Putt every day is an American dream come true."