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."
Hard by his course in Fayetteville, Clayton has started a chain of restaurants and of 45-foot-high slides. The restaurants are called "Wow-Wow." The slides are called "Slide-Slide." Clayton also owns a travel agency. It is not called "Travel-Travel" or "Go-Go." Clayton drives a root beer-colored Cadillac convertible which has "I play Putt-Putt" stickers front and back and a license plate that reads "Wow-Wow." His Putt-Putt organization has its own chaplain, Baxter Walker, formerly of Grace Baptist Church in Fayetteville, who writes a column called "The Game of Life" in the monthly house organ.
The game of Putt-Putt is indeed one of skill and finesse acquired over a long period of time and practice. PPA members—who play their tour only in the summer and are otherwise bankers, clerks, teachers, students, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers—use the same clubs and balls, and most of the same stances and strokes, as regular touring golf pros. Holes are standardized on every Putt-Putt course around the country and are given names like "Water Hole," "Sidehill" and "Drop-Off." Most of the holes require the putter to angle his shots off wooden, orange-painted bumpboards to avoid obstacles such as pipes, bricks, water and wrought-iron letters that spell "Putt-Putt" and "PPA." Because of this aspect of the game, Putt-Putt resembles billiards or pool as much as it does golf.
Putt-Putt is not without relations to the PGA. Freddie Haas of New Orleans, who was once a leading money-winner on the PGA tour, played in a couple of Putt-Putt tournaments a few years ago. Bobby Mitchell, a PGA tour regular, is a former city champion of Putt-Putt in Danville, Va. Moreover, last December in Pompano Beach, Fla. five members of the PGA—Dave Hill, Randy Glover, Lou Graham, Don Massengale and Rex Baxter—faced five PPA members in a putting match, half on Putt-Putt and half on a regular green. The Putt-Putt people claim they lost on grass but won on the carpets. The PGA claims victory on both.
"We made a mistake. We showed them how to putt the carpets and where to angle the spots," says Vance (The Lance) Randall, the only man to win the PPA National Championship in two different seasons. "And on the real green we were out there hitting 90-foot putts. That's not puttin', that's huntin'. We want the PGA again."
Randall, a girls' basketball coach in Rossville, Ga., says there is a big difference between PPA and PGA play. "The pressure in Putt-Putt is unbelievable on every shot," he says. "If I could swing away once in a while, or go out on a fairway and mix up the routine, it wouldn't be so bad. But I can't. It's all puttin'. At least the PGA boys get to walk."
In its pursuit of recognition, the PPA has abandoned itself, by financial necessity, to the whim of the television camera. Each year for the past eight, Clayton has staged a Parade of Champions TV series of seven pretaped matches that are shown on more than 70 stations around the country. This year he elected to make the last rounds of the World Championship serve as his TV show.
In a trailer on the eve of the final matches, Clayton explained the procedure to the eight remaining contestants:
"Now you men know the system," he began. "If the TV technicians do not catch the action or if a match goes over our allotted 21 minutes, we have to play the match over. You understand that if you're nine up after nine holes and the TV men say the tape hasn't gone right, we have to rub it out and start again. You are only paid for what the tape catches. You will sign a statement to that effect, that you agree to this. And please, men, if you do win a match tomorrow and we have to run it over and then you lose, please, men, don't say anything about it or complain about it. That's just the rub of the green."
Clayton went on: "Now on TV, I'm going to do commentary to sway the public to one man's side. This does not mean I am for anyone or against anyone. Please remember this. Last year I had people all over America pulling for a man because he wanted to build an extra room onto his house for a new baby. We're doing sports reporting here, but we're also doing a selling job, and this is the best way I know how. God bless you all, men, and remember one more thing.
"Remember the image of this great organization is at stake. Try to smile at all times, even when you lose. Champions always smile."
On two previous occasions television mistakes had changed the outcome of a Putt-Putt match. In one, the legendary Prince of Putt, Neil Connor, a piano tuner from Greenville, S.C., aced the 18th hole to defeat another former champion, Bob Williamson. At the time the TV cameras had not been turned on, and when they played the hole over, Williamson aced and Connor missed.
However, "There is never malice," says Williamson, "because we don't have anything to say about it. We know the risks. It's hard to believe, but the money isn't that important to us. We care more about how Putt-Putt looks."
Fortunately—although a couple of holes did have to be replayed for the camera—nothing serious happened in Fayetteville last week. The whole affair did take on the look of a green-and-orange fantasy with Clayton as director and Ricky Smith, Vance The Lance and all spectators as so many untutored actors. The galleries were earnestly solicited with offers of free soft drinks and gently plied with Clayton's tributes of "Folks, you're just a beautiful gallery, but would you please get your shadows off our carpets?"
Smith, The Ace Machine, said he would use his winning purse of $15,000 "to pay for a few semesters" and to start his own Putt-Putt at home in Indianapolis. Undoubtedly he will take the words of Don Clayton with him. As written to all prospective owners of miniature-golf courses, they are:
"...If you would like to be a part of the most wonderful industry that God has ever allowed to prosper in this land, we invite you to contact Putt-Putt Golf Courses.... $100,000 a year? If God gave you the mind and the health and the strength and the years in which to accomplish it, it can be accomplished for you and for your loved ones through Putt-Putt."
Coaxing the ball, winner Ricky Smith gives a putt the full body English, while runner-up Gary Love (inset) merely flexes his knees.
Czar of Putt-Putt is Don Clayton (upper left). Tiny galleries, watching one player struggle with tiered "green" and another sink an ace, are no problem—the money is in TV.