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The ice-men of competitive goofy golf

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Wednesday, Nov 14, 2007

I love miniature golf, the more preposterous the holes the better. I like loop-de-loops, rotating obstacles, crossing wood-plank bridges over moats, the whole thing. I even played a glow-in-the dark goofy golf course in some dingy cellar on Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls.


But though I like a healthy amount of chance mixed into my mini golf, I still play to win. When I used to go down to a friend’s beach house in Ocean City, New Jersey, we became dork aficionados of the many boardwalk courses and eventually got to the point where we’d bring our own putters and balls to the courses, to up the level of competition (and to perhaps compensate for the edge taken away by the beverages that were also brought along). But no matter how geeky we got, we never approached the level of the men profiled in this Wall Street Journal story by Charles Forelle about competitive minature golf, as it’s played in Scandinavia.


In Europe, competitors like Mr. Ryner play a rigorously pure form of miniature golf. Course designs are more Mies van der Rohe than Myrtle Beach—clean lines, crisp angles, geometric obstacles. There are no garden gnomes astride the mini fairways. No toy windmills. No water hazards teeming with plywood crocodiles. Here, minigolf is an athletic fugue of golf and billiards, a challenge of precision and consistency.


I was shocked to discover that these hardcore minigolfers have a range of balls that they use for different surfaces and different angles, and that they can hit shots with deliberate spin. They even go to the trouble of heating or cooling balls when necessary to get the right amount of bounce off the walls.


Forelle maintains throughout the perfect A-hed-story tone of haute seriousness (“athletic fugue” is genius), but what makes the story priceless is the quotes collected from the stern Europeans who compete with such rigorous purity.


Minigolf requires stamina and precise control. Most of all, it takes mental fortitude, says Hans Bergström, a computer specialist at Volvo and president of the European Minigolfsport Federation. “You have a very small muscle movement that makes the difference. If you cannot control your nerves, you will get it wrong,” he says. “The very best players in the world are ice-cold men.”


What does this say about the Swedes and Germans who seem to dominate the sport?


To grow the sport in America, some entrepreneurs are encouraging enlivening the sport with goofier holes. But one of the champions is not pleased with the idea that courses will become more gimmicky to make the sport more enticing and perhaps televisable (and if you’ve read this far I definitely recommend you watch all the clips on the WSJ’s interactive video feature):


Walter Erlbruch bristles at the memory of a round of American-style minigolf. The passing blades of a windmill scooped up putted balls and flung them into a pool. “Luck,” sniffs Mr. Erlbruch. “If you make a nonsense of my sport, I don’t like it.”



I’m sure somewhere in America, miniature golf is played with this level of intensity, but it never managed to reach even the level of horseshoes in terms of respectability here as an adult game. That’s probably because it tends to be a family activity, meaning competitors are at unequal levels of ability. This encourages course designs that negate the role of talent, or else it makes adult players not to get too hung up on playing well in order to keep it “fun” for everyone—so they play down to the level of the kid who’s whacking the ball around with no conception of the rules or the purpose of keeping score. Also, it’s probably never caught on with adults here because, unlike, say, bowling or darts, drinking is not usually integrated with playing minigolf. Mini golf courses—inexplicably, to my mind—don’t typically have bars on site. You are discouraged from beer drinking while putt-putting, which is strange considering how commonplace drinking is on real golf courses, where players typically have to pilot motor vehicles around and send flying projectiles through the air with as much velocity as they can muster. But then, my pleasure in minigolf may strictly be a nostalgic thing for childhood, when cutthroat competition meant trying to get the ball in the clown’s nose for a free game, not trying to make sure you weren’t forced to work overtime without compensation just to keep your job.


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