By Cara Cummings
Britain’s first ever Crazy Golf Open took place in Hastings this month. Crazy, adventure, mini – whatever you call it, when did golf’s pint-sized cousin get so serious?
“Why am I standing here on a freezing Saturday morning if I’m not a little bit eccentric?” asks Brad, soaking wet amidst the plastic palm trees. It’s not every Saturday you find yourself stood on the outskirts of Croydon in a torrential downpour, with an “eccentric” stranger called Brad. California, maybe, but not Croydon.
A knight in sodden fleece, Brad Shepherd is my guide around Dragon Quest, an 18-hole minigolf course. He’s also one of 25 British players currently ranked by the World Minigolf Federation. According to the WMF, 36,000 registered players worldwide are waging war amongst the shrunken windmills of the planet’s most glamorous destinations: Antwerp, Birmingham, Margate. It may be more Premier Inn than Premier League, but competitive minigolf’s booming.
Brad’s social life isn’t. Since 2004, he’s given his all to the game, competing in up to 20 tournaments a year. He’s brought his own putter and a bulging man-bag of specialist balls for our knockabout. “I haven’t got as many as some people,” he sighs wistfully. “In Europe, you have people whose job it is purely to maintain the balls, check their temperature…” Brad trails off longingly. I concentrate on keeping a straight face.
Europe’s a sore point for British minigolfers. Regularly walloped by their continental cousins, Team GB sit 18th in a 29-nation league. “Let’s put it this way – we’re not ranked amongst the elite,” admits Jon Angel, a former squad member. “I’m being diplomatic. We’re certainly not. But we’re definitely improving,” he posits hopefully. “We can get to mid-table within the next 4-8 years; I think that’s realistic.” Minigolf’s clearly a long-haul love affair.
It’s a deadly serious one for the pros. Brad’s playing a complete novice, but he’s going for gold in our game. Every green is analysed for bumps – the minigolfer’s Moriarty – in reverent silence, for minutes on end. ‘Mustn’t get beaten by a girl!’, he murmurs. He’s only half joking. Does good ol’fashioned rivalry keep British minigolfers going when glory’s in short supply?
At first Brad’s quite the golfing gent, squiring me around Dragon Quest with advice aplenty. Until I win a hole by sinking my ball (calm down, dear) in fewer shots than he manages. Suddenly, things get serious. Gone are the cheery hints; we’re locked in silent, soggy combat. In a damascene flash, I get minigolf’s appeal: anyone can play, so anyone can win. It’s catnip for the competitive.
Fuelling my burgeoning win-lust, Brad says I could make a top 3 UK “lady player”. How many women play the circuit? “Most of the time, two.” Brad giveth, and Brad taketh away.
But by hole 13, the rain’s shedding down in slants and we call it quits for fear of being vertically waterboarded. (Brad doesn’t even have a hood. He’s a mini-golfing alpha male.) As we say goodbye, I ask why he’s stuck with mini-golf. It took him two hours to get here. You could fly to Denmark in less. “For the love of it,” Brad says simply, staring at a fibreglass dragon atop a neon waterfall.
Mini-golf’s not just eccentric; it’s really rather charming.