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It is always worth taking note of teenage golfing prodigies because they often have names like Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy, which turn out to be worth remembering. So let me give you Olivia Prokopová, 19 years old and from the Czech Republic.
There is something we better get straight about Prokopová. She is not what you might call a regular golfer. She is the star turn on the pro mini-golf circuit. Repeat: mini-golf, aka crazy golf, puttputt or whatever: the game you play with the kids when they get bored on the beach. You didn’t know there was a pro mini-golf circuit? Me neither.
In fact the sport is large enough to be in schism: there is a big difference between the European circuit, centred on Germany and played mainly on concrete, and the Anglophone version, played increasingly on artificial turf. Prokopová performs mostly in the US, where she has been competing since she was eight. Last year she won the three biggest tournaments; in 2014, having just started to get noticed beyond the friendly confines of her sport, she blew a comfortable lead in the US Open and lost by two shots to one of the middle-aged Americans who otherwise dominate these occasions.
Whatever outsiders might think, mini-golfers take their game seriously; Prokopová, however, takes it very seriously indeed. She travels with an entourage: her father Jan plus “a nutritionist, masseur, motivational coach, physical therapist and training partner” – that’s just one other bloke, but still. Other competitors once rolled up to an event in Missouri to discover she had been there practising for three weeks.
“That’s one of the advantages of our sport,” says Bengt Svensson, manager of the World Mini-golf Federation. “You don’t have to be big or strong. If you practise a lot, women are as good as men.” That may be an understatement. Last October, while everyone else moaned about the weather, she won the big British event at Hastings by 21 strokes. “She practises. She practises. That’s what she does. It’s kind of bordering on obsession,” said Sean Homer, the distant runner-up and chairman of the British association, with a mixture of admiration and bemusement.
The economics are not obvious. In the US the winner’s purse goes up to $3,000-$4,000, which defrays the expenses but maybe not for three weeks. Prokopová also gets sponsorship from home. The infant craft of mini-golf journalism has not yet managed to elicit clear answers about why she does what she does, partly because, despite all her time in the US, she has not learned much English. No time, presumably.
The players are dismissive of the kids’ stuff that adorn the courses. “Step back from the pirate paraphernalia and you’ve got a pretty challenging putting tournament,” says Homer. And it’s true that, just as golf is a character-builder for all ages, there are a few better ways for an eight-year-old to grasp the essential unfairness of life than to play a lovely tee-shot through a windmill or lighthouse – and then four-putt from six inches away as the ball hurtles down the slope.
For the serious players, mini-golf is more like snooker or pool: a game of angles. The main skill is knowing exactly how and where to get the ball to rebound from the edges. This is especially true of the continental version, where anything other than a hole-in-one is considered a failure: the leaders in the European Cup in Schriesheim this weekend have been averaging around 19 strokes per round, whereas in the US it is closer to 30.
One hesitates to indulge in national stereotypes but the world rankings in this version of the game are dominated by German-speakers, and, well, they do seem to like precision in sport. (Before 2012, Germany won 12 successive Olympic golds in dressage, a form of equestrianism most riders find pretty dull.) “Their game is far more mechanical, more technical,” explains Homer. “We do play over there but it’s a challenge. There’s a lot more flair and creativity the way we play.”
There is one thing very few top mini-golfers do in their spare time: play golf. They agree that, if McIlroy wanted to switch, he might make a little money. If he practised. But he would have to forswear distractions. “If you want to play mini-golf to a high standard,” says Svensson, “you don’t have the time for golf as well.”
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