Ahead Of The Game
Playing Putt-Putt for money
By Mark Mcclellan
JULY 26, 1999: Jean Van De Velde, the teaching pro from EuroDisney, entered the final round of the 128th British Open in Scotland with a five-shot lead.
Van De Velde fell apart. He made a seven on the final hole to sneak into a playoff with former champion Justin Leonard and eventual winner Paul Lawrie, a native Scot.
Ward made a seven down the stretch as well -- on his final five holes. Cumulatively. And in doing so he buried his competition, Dave McCaslin, a native Memphian.
There would be no playoff for Ward, not even a hint of one, and he left Memphis with an extra $2,000 in his pocket as a result.
The Professional Putters Association? Western Open? Greg Ward? In Memphis? Does none of that sound familiar?
Don't feel left out or alone. Unless you are a closet junkie of the sport of Putt-Putt, none of that should trigger your memory. Yet, when Sunday was done, it was Ward going home with a major championship and Van De Velde left to wonder what might have been.
The Professional Putters Association is just what it sounds like it should be. It is an organization made up mostly of men who play Putt-Putt for money. That's right. They play Putt-Putt for money. The Western Open is one of four "majors" hosted by the P.P.A. annually. The other three, in case you were wondering, are the Eastern Open, the Northern Open, and the Southern Open. The P.P.A. doesn't waste a whole lot of time thinking of clever names for its tournaments.
Putt-Putt Family Park on Summer Avenue was selected to host this year's Western Open. Bobby Owens, president of Fayetteville, North Carolina-based Putt-Putt, says that his organization likes to rotate sites for its majors.
"Memphis was chosen because the facility is good," said Owens. "It's been one of our more successful franchises, and we like to give exposure and opportunity to our courses."
But back to this idea of playing Putt-Putt for money. Yes, it is the same game we've all played at some point in our lives. You have a putter and a golf ball, and you try to make as many hole-in-ones as possible. Virtually all of us have spent a Friday night at some time playing this game. We've all made a hole-in-one.
And the pros are not much different from us. They came to Memphis last weekend from Georgia, Florida, Texas, Ohio, and seven other states. During the week they work regular jobs. Barb Mingo, the only woman in the field, is a certified public accountant. Jimmy Mott is a cabinet maker, Greg Roberts is a disc jockey, and John Ventura is a computer specialist. They all returned to their respective homes on Sunday night and they all went to work Monday morning.
There were 62 pros in town playing eight 18-hole rounds of Putt-Putt -- four on Saturday and four on Sunday. If one of the players only made 50 hole-in-ones over the weekend, that player wasn't even in contention.
The difference is the hole-in-ones. On a good Friday night, you might have three, maybe four. These guys make them frequently, effortlessly. Take Mike Brown of Rock Hill, South Carolina, for example. He made 70 hole-in-ones this weekend out of the 144 holes he played. That's basically a hole-in-one on every other hole and he didn't come close to winning the tournament. That's because of Ward. He made 80 aces in his 144 holes and won the tournament by 11 shots over McCaslin.
McCaslin, like British Open winner Paul Lawrie, was a sentimental favorite. Lawrie was the first Scot to win the British Open in 68 years. McCaslin was trying to become the first native Memphian to win the Western Open on home turf.
"I spent the first 21 years of my life here," said McCaslin. "I went to Wooddale High School and then to Memphis State. I worked at this Putt-Putt for seven years."
He now manages a restaurant in Indialantic, Florida, but Memphis still tugs at him.
"I have a lot of friends and family here," said McCaslin. "It's good to be back home. Everyone else has been complaining about the heat. I just tell them it's a typical Memphis summer."
He wanted to win this tournament badly, not just for sentimental reasons but for the $2,000 first prize. Airfare to and from Florida isn't cheap, and these players don't make a living playing this game.
"I thought I had a chance starting the final round, " said McCaslin. "I got to within two shots in the seventh round, but I couldn't make enough putts. Greg was playing well."
That's an understatement. At about the same time that Van De Velde was choking on his opportunity to win his first major championship, Ward was relishing his. He made a hole-in-one on five of the first seven holes of his final round while McCaslin was struggling with just two. Mike Brown tried to make a run at Ward but a four on the eighth hole took him right out of contention. A four by a pro in Putt-Putt is about as rare as someone blowing a five-shot lead on the final hole of the British Open, but it does happen. Brown knew he was done. After retrieving his ball from the cup, he slammed his putter so hard into the ground that the butt end of it buried about an inch into a nearby patch of grass.
Lest you think differently, these players do take Putt-Putt seriously. Jimmy Mott, who was playing with Brown and McCaslin on Sunday, entered the day in sixth place, but early in the seventh round, the putts stopped dropping for him. Through the ninth hole of the seventh round, he had slammed, dropped, or tossed his putter seven times in disgust and also managed to mutter a couple of expletives in the process. Nelson Britt and Lewis Burton, the defending national champion, tried to make a charge but just couldn't keep pace.
Meanwhile, Ward just kept making putts. Eleven hole-in-ones in his final round gave him a 25 for the last 18 holes and lowered his tournament winning total to 80 under par. That's 80 hole-in-ones in 144 holes, an average score of 26 for each of his eight rounds.
While the professional golfers in Scotland and millions of TV viewers cringed on every shot Van De Velde took on 18, the pro putters lined the Putt-Putt course as Greg Ward made his way down the final stretch. After scoring a hole-in-one on number 15, one of them shouted, "Hell, Greg, play the last three holes left-handed."
And after missing an ace on 16 and tapping in for a two, he was good-naturedly ribbed by his fellow competitors.
"Is that the best you can do?" asked one. "I aced that hole twice today. You may be winning the tournament but I kicked your ass on that hole."
Everyone laughed. Just for good measure, Ward drained his 80th hole-in-one on the 17th and made a two on the final hole to claim the big money.
"I've been playing really good lately," said the soft-spoken Ward. "When you have a 10-shot lead coming down the stretch, there's not near as much pressure on you to make the putts. When Dave [McCaslin] didn't make some putts to start the final round and I did, it gave me some breathing room."
With the $2,000 first-prize check in hand, Ward has now won more than $110,000 in the last 17 years playing Putt-Putt.
While Van De Velde was snap-hooking his drive on the first playoff hole in Scotland, Ward was smiling and shaking hands in Memphis. There are three noticeable differences between "real" golf and Putt-Putt. First of all, the pro putters carry 13 fewer clubs and, secondly, they don't need a caddy. Most important, perhaps, Van De Velde was withering in front of millions of TV viewers while Ward was winning in front of maybe 100 people.
Other than that, the language is the same. Players rejoice on a great shot and curse themselves on a bad one. The players at the British Open complained about the course conditions, and a bump in the carpet on one of the Putt-Putt holes brought mutters from several players.
Owens, though, is still pleased with the attention his sport gets.
"Last year's telecast on ESPN," he says with a smile, "had 2.5 million viewers. Think about that. That's 2.5 million people watching Putt-Putt on television."
Making Owens even happier is the fact that ESPN renewed that deal again this year. There will be four Putt-Putt telecasts on the cable sports giant this fall.
When all the festivities were done on Sunday, the galleries at Carnoustie in Scotland were roaring their approval of Lawrie's victory. Greg Ward, meanwhile, tossed his putter in the trunk of his car and got ready to make the long drive back to the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville.
"That guy's a heck of player," one bystander said to another as he motioned toward Ward. "To shoot 80 under par, that's amazing."
Greg Ward then drove out of the parking lot on Summer Avenue with a winner's smile.
Jean Van De Velde wished he could have done the same.
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