Miniature golf more than just a hobby

Brad Lebo is one of the best golfers in the world. He’s never competed at Augusta National Golf Club or played a round with Tiger Woods, but he has already won a Masters Tournament and the US Open. Twice.

Lebo is a professional mini golfer. Don’t make a windmill joke just yet, though.

“When (people) give me grief about being a professional miniature golfer, if it’s someone I know well, I’ll say, ‘What have you been the national champion at?’ and that will end the conversation,” Lebo said.

Lebo, a dentist from Shippensburg, Pa., started playing mini golf seriously in 1989 and competes in as many as 50 pro tournaments a year. The Daily caught up with him and about 80 other professional putt-putters at the US Pro Minigolf Masters Tournament this month in North Myrtle Beach, SC.

The winner of the Mini Masters gets a green jacket, just like in the full-size Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga. But instead of the $1.44 million last year’s Masters winner took home, 2011 Pro Minigolf Masters Winner Jay Klapper got $4,000.

But that didn’t detract from the thrill of winning at the Hawaiian Rumble, a celebrated course with a mock volcano that erupts every 20 minutes.

“Today was fantastic,” said Klapper, a counselor of what he calls “hard-core juvenile delinquents” in Atlanta. “They’re very hard, very competitive tournaments that we play against each other. Then, when we’re done, we hang out and have fun and watch football and have a big party and celebrate.”

Bob Detweiler is the owner of the Hawaiian Rumble course and president of the US Pro Miniature Golf Association. The Masters and the US Open, played in May, are the tour’s biggest tournaments, he said.

“People think of mini golf as a family activity, and that’s good, it’s wholesome,” Detweiler said. “But they don’t relate to it as a sport. There is a competitive side to it.”

Mini golf has been an American pastime since the early 20th century. In 1930, putters elevated the hobby to the level of a sport at the National Tom Thumb Open at Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Now, the game has gone global.

Several players told The Daily that mini golf is big in Europe, and ESPN reported recently that the sport is catching on in China.

Unlike professional golf, men and women compete in the same mini golf tournaments. Olivia Prokopva, 16, of the Czech Republic, finished second at last year’s Masters and trains with a coach to remain one of the best players in the world.

“If somebody outplays me, hats off to them,” said Randy Reeves, who works for the US Postal Service in Montgomery, Ala. “Man or woman, it makes no difference to me.”

The sport has some quasi-celebrity devotees. Charlie O’Connell, the fought-over stud on the seventh season of ABC’s “The Bachelor,” told The Daily he’s been playing competitively for about four years. When playing in a mini golf tournament, the reality star said, he’s no longer the alpha male of television fame.

“I was the guy handing out roses . . . the girls were vying for my attention,” O’Connell said. But in mini golf, he said, “nobody cares what I think. I’m like one of the girls who’s about to get cut, and I’m just walking on eggshells.”