As SoCal Mini-Golf Reopens, Here's How Professional Mini-Golfers Do It (Yes, There Are Pro Mini-Golfers)

Then-Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang plays mini-golf after holding a town hall meeting at Penn Central Mall Jan. 25, 2020, in Oskaloosa, Iowa. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Miniature golf was recently given the green light by the state to reopen. Los Angeles County has yet to open our own tiny greens, but Orange County has, allowing courses like Glo Mini Golf to open up — with modifications like screening employees, disinfecting equipment, and encouraging social distancing.

So if you want to be a professional mini-golfer, it's time to start practicing.

Wait, pro mini-golf? What's that?

PRACTICING 10 HOURS A DAY

More than 50 percent of Americans play miniature golf at least once per year, according to the United States ProMiniGolf Association — aka the USPMGA. Yes, there are pro mini-golfers — multiple organizations host professional tournaments, with hundreds of pros worldwide.

There's even an ABC game show, Holey Moley, now in its second season, featuring the sport. So what does it take to truly be a master of these miniature games?

The USPMGA holds tournaments featuring what the organization's Ted Detwiler said are the best putters in the world, with thousands of dollars in prize money.

"They take it dead serious, they practice 10 hours a day," Detwiler told LAist.

Detwiler is an actor-turned-mini-golf-mogul, who joined the family business and works out of the organization's South Carolina office and on projects (like Holey Moley) here in Los Angeles. His dad created mini-golf's Master's tournament.

Calling miniature golf a sport could come as a surprise to some, and Detwiler said he knows it may sound funny. But it uses many of the same skills that go into pro golfers' putts — with the occasional added obstacles.

"I know it's not the UFC, or football, but it's really unique, and people take it serious — and they're really good," Detwiler said.

GOING PRO

Jeff McDonald, who plays out of San Diego, said that most pros start young and fall in love with the game and the competition. He was a youth pro, and still plays competitively at 65 in putt-putt — a version of the sport featuring more standardized courses.

"Professional putters come from all professions, and most are also interesting people," McDonald told LAist.

Back in the day, players had to take a test, get a qualifying score, and memorize the former national champions to become a pro player, McDonald said — now, you just have to get out your wallet and pay a fee to compete at the pro level.

The USPMGA sends two or three teams to play in the world mini-golf championships in Europe each year — but this year's was cancelled due to COVID-19, as were the group's U.S. tournaments. A major downside for players: Those who'd qualified for the European tournament won't be automatically qualified next year, and will have to re-qualify.

"I know one guy who made the team, and it was the first time he made the team, and he was going to take his whole family, and go to Europe, and it was a big deal," Detwiler said. "And he's not always a top guy, so he might not make the team."

THE TV SHOW THAT MADE MINI-GOLF REALLY REALLY FUNNY

A — wait for it — miniature of the 18 holes of the extreme mini-golf competition series Holey Moley, featuring comedian Rob Riggle as a commentator. (Christopher Willard/ABC)

ABC's Holey Moley has been an unlikely entry into the reality TV world, creating a massive, extreme mini-golf competition from its Santa Clarita set with a big dose of comedy — from a hole with a volcano to a pool filled with circling sharks (don't worry, no limbs were lost). Ratings have been solid, and it's given the sport a big modern platform.

Detwiler worked with the show to help develop its course. Holey Moley drew from enthusiasts, semi-pro, and former pro golfers with a more traditional background. They all brought their putting skills to play, the show's executive producer Chris Culvenor told LAist.

While there are lots of skilled players on the show, there's an advantage to mini-golf that isn't there with a lot of sports: they're easily accessible, and more about skill than physicality.

"You can be a 65-year-old grandmother, or you can be an 18-year-old teenager, and you can actually be as skilled as each other," Culvenor said.

A recent putt-putt tournament's top two players were 70 and 71, McDonald noted.

"When they are putting on the show, it really matters — you're going to see spectacular putts, you're going to see really skillful people," Culvenor said.

Culvenor describes Holey Moley as a serious show in a silly world. And one thing they take really seriously is whether the players actually have the skills — beyond just casting based on personality, they need to have a passion and a skill for miniature golf, Culvenor said.

They'd largely shot their season by the time COVID-19 restrictions were put in place — other than scenes with Golden State Warriors player Steph Curry, an avid golfer who serves as a commentator on the show. So they animated his appearances.

"We now have a show that is so joyful, and obviously sports-focused at a time when things are challenging enough, and at a time when there are no sports," Culvenor said.

BRINGING BACK MINI-GOLF TO SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

This miniature golf course was around in England in 1925, so we're guessing the game will survive the pandemic. (Alfred Hind Robinson/Getty Images)

As coronavirus shut down public gatherings, the thousands of miniature golf courses around the country have been hard hit, Culvenor said. But he sees a bright future for the game.

"The reason I say that is it's something that is social, something that is so fun," Culvenor said. "I have to think, after going through challenging times, people need some release."

Detwiler is even more enthusiastic. His organization's South Carolina courses reopened May 1 — he notes that it's an outdoor sport and people can stay in their own small groups, allowing for social distancing during play.

And who knows what might come next — Detwiler said they've been working on getting the sport into the Olympics.

You'll have to wait to play publicly here in L.A. County. The city itself even has its own mini-golf course waiting for once things reopen. Until then, you can get your mini-golf game going in Orange County, or watch Holey Moley on ABC Thursday nights.