Mini-Masters, Maxi-Interest

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"Welcome, everybody, to the prestigious Masters Golf Tournament," rang the announcement.

No, reports Sunday Morning's Bill Geist — not that Masters. Not the world-famous one, held each year at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.

In a break with tradition, this one is held in a "tropical paradise of cascading waterfalls and exotic animals," Geist says.

"I'd like to welcome everybody to North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and the Hawaiian Rumble and the 2004 Masters of Miniature Golf," the announcement continues.

Geist describes Myrtle Beach as "the mecca of mini-golf, sporting some 55 different courses. (The) legendary Hawaiian Rumble course is the game's Augusta National — playing host to the Masters, along with Hawaiian Village and Hawaiian Caverns."

The Masters of mini-golf, Geist explains, like the Masters of biggie golf, draws the elite of the professional ranks. "Yes," Geist exclaims, "there really are pro mini-golfers, like George X, who travels coast-to-coast on the mini-golf circuit, although most people can't believe it.

"Most of 'em never heard of pro mini-golf. They laugh at you," he says.

Bob Detwyler is president of the U.S. Pro MiniGolf Association.

He says, "You tell people we do professional miniature golf, and they give you a look like, 'What are you talking about, professional miniature golf? Are you out of your mind?'"

At the Mini-Masters, players compete for mini-fame and mini-fortune — the winner takes home $4,000. At Augusta, it's $1 million, Geist notes.

"Like the purse," Geist adds, "the galleries are somewhat smaller, too. Most of the time, I was the gallery.

There are no carts, no caddies, no sand traps. "Although," Geist says, "there certainly are hazards. Some, the likes of which Tiger Woods has never had to deal with — like someone putting big rocks on the greens — right in front of the holes! And traffic roaring by while you're trying to putt."

"The mini-game," Geist asserts, "is more like billiards on hills."

The golden age of miniature golf was the 1930s, when courses were everywhere, and everyone was playing. By the 1950's, "garden golf" was turning into "wacky golf," or "goofy golf."

But, Geist reports, there is a concerted effort these days to turn mini-golf into a serious sport.

"More and more people are taking notice of the fact that there is a competitive side to mini-golf," Detwyler says. "It is a sport now in the World Games and probably around 2009 will be the first year we will compete in the world games, which is the minor league for the Olympics.

"You don't have to be a 250-pound athlete to do this, but it takes a lot of training and desire and determination to be good at it."

It's become a truly international sport, Geist points out, with players coming to the mini-golf masters from around the world.

Swedish ace Aders Oson says mini-golf is now bigger in his homeland than in the United States: "In Sweden, almost everyone plays mini-golf, so everyone knows about it. Everyone knows there are competitions."

The European-international game is quite different from the one in the U.S., Geist says. "You could call it Euro-techno golf. No plastic animals. Their courses are all exactly the same, and players carry hundreds of different balls that vary in texture, hardness, and bounce - and which they cool or warm to alter their performance."

Anders Olson, with his silky smooth stroke, won the Masters: the $4000, and the green jacket — a windbreaker. "This Masters is a bit more casual than Augusta's," Geist says.

Olson is the first foreigner to win the Masters, and, Geist reports, there are concerns in some mini-golf quarters "that the Europeans are hijacking our game, which is why Bob Detwyler built a state-of-the-art training center for our athletes. …and why he's appealing to bigger sponsors for major funding."

"It's that," Geist concludes, "or risk the unthinkable: the U.S.A. becoming a second-rate mini-golf power in the 21st century."