To paraphrase the Stranger in Big Lebowski- “Sometimes you eat the alligator, sometimes he eats you.” It seems a fitting way to think about my latest tournament fun down in Ocean City, NJ.
I write this blog for two reasons – a) I just want an archive of some of these events because far too much of what happens in competitive minigolf goes uncovered and potentially lost to time and b) I want to make it as interesting as possible to get some new people to tournaments and/or to give regular players just some more fun media to read about minigolf. With that in mind, I was trying to figure out what my angle for this post was, and I think it just ends up being simple – sometimes you are going to play a tournament and it’s just not going to work out anywhere near how you planned, but when that happens try to keep having fun and just know there’s always another one not far around the corner.
The O-Street $1,000 tournament down in New Jersey in mid-August was my first tournament of the year. This was the third year of the tournament and I was looking forward to it because I was the defending champion and, although it was on a different course this year, from what I had seen in videos I felt pretty good about my chances. At this point in my putting career, I haven’t had a ton of chances to defend a title so I saw it as a nice challenge. Given it was a 4+ hour drive down to the shore, I had to first consider what my trip would look like. Last year I headed down the evening before and was lucky to get in some practice after a thunderstorm that night and then the next morning. I thought this year to maximize my chances I would head down a day earlier, which would give me a full day of practice. Unfortunately, I think that ended up backfiring. If I have learned anything this summer it’s that no matter what time you leave CT to drive down to the Jersey shore, if it is light out it’s going to be a sucky drive. I left just after lunch on Friday and what should have been a 4 hour trip to my hotel turned into a nearly 6 hour one. Already tired, I decided not to take the additional 30 minute drive down to the course and opted for dinner and doing my Putt18 rounds for the week. I had run out of time at home so got to experience what it was like rolling out the mat on a hotel floor. It wasn’t horrible but it certainly wasn’t great either, but it did help pass the time and I felt like kind of got me into the overall putting mood for the weekend.
After a good night’s sleep (one of the few childless ones I’ve had in 18 months – parents you know what I’m talking about), I went down to Tee Time Golf on the Ocean City boardwalk for its 9am opening. I was worried about parking given its location right on the beach on a beautiful weekend but luckily there was a municipal lot right next door. Settling my car in there for the day I took to the course and immediately regretted it being the summer. It was already well over 80 (F) and it wasn’t going to get better from there until the sun went down.
For those of you who haven’t seen any media around the course, it’s not a “normal” tournament course as it is completely obstacle based. The course is over 50 years old and has 15 moving obstacles over the 19 (of 20) holes that we were playing for the tournament. The timing element was definitely in play this weekend as was speed, which I quickly found out. This course played a LOT faster than you would think upon first looking at it and the carpet. It also didn’t help that the first obstacle tells you that “easy does it” which is actually a lie in this case because too easy and it would spit the ball back out at you. Nothing like some mind games thrown at you by a spinning octopus.
I spent two hours that morning working on shots and before noon I was already drenched with sweat and in need of several bottles of water. The way the course was situated between buildings there was very little breeze to be caught coming off the ocean, so it was a bit of a hotbox. When my fellow penguin Mandy arrived in the early afternoon, it was time to take a break from the course. I had shot one 32 round, which was very good at that course and had my confidence high that I was able to do so while feeling like I was going to pass out. Given this was our first time in Ocean City, we had hit up a few more courses for the website so we wandered down the boardwalk the rest of the afternoon and played Haunted Golf, Seaside Village and Goofy Golf all while trying (and failing) to stay hydrated. I know some people get focused just on the competition at hand but I’m a proponent of taking the time step away from one course and enjoy others in the area if you haven’t. You never know when you’ll be back and a lot of times you’ll appreciate more courses that tournaments are on after seeing what else is out there. Once the sun started to go down and the temperatures feel more normal, we headed back for a couple more rounds under the lights at Tee Time. By the time we left at 9pm, I was feeling pretty good about my rounds but I was also exhausted. In retrospect, I think it was too much time in heat because I was still feeling it some the next day. I have to remind myself sometimes that I’m starting to get….old…and I can’t recover as easily as I might have in my youth. Not using it as an excuse for my eventual outcome but in reflecting on it, I would call it a contributing factor.
This tournament has one of the later start times of the tournaments I play, with us teeing off at 11am. This gave Mandy and I plenty of time to get down to the boardwalk the next day, have a nice bit of breakfast on the beach and start practicing once the course opened at 9am. We were just about to get into our first round when my Puttcast co-host Tom and his wife Robin (both of A Couple of Putts fame) arrived and we all hooked up with my perpetual putting buddies Justin, Highlighter, Anna and new to the game friend Garret. All seemed to be going well in my practice round until hole 7 – the alligator.
In practice the day earlier, I had decided that this hole was going to be one that was make or break for a lot of people in the tournament. It can be an intimidating hole. You putt up a ramp into the alligator’s mouth, which also opens and closes, and a successful attempt lands you an automatic ace. The problem is that the mouth is sloped on either side so you need a good straight shot but you can’t just fire it in there because the metal will bounce the ball back out sometimes as well. Even worse, it might not bounce all the way back to you but could stay stuck on the gators teeth. Now the best players don’t take much extra thought to this obstacle and in my practice rounds I hadn’t either. I had missed it once or twice which was nothing and always got it on the second time. That morning though….it became a problem. I missed my first practice putt, then my second, then my fourth and by the time my sixth and eighth came around I wasn’t even close to making it, banging it off the side of the gator. It had gotten in my head and buried there. Up until the past few years I had never really had this problem with a minigolf hole, but it’s happened a couple times more recently. I don’t know if there’s now just more pressure because I’m doing better in tournaments and know I have less margin of error on the course to win/place, or what might be causing it but it happens. I just end up feeling like my hands could not execute what my brain is trying to tell them, even if I am lining up and taking perfectly normal practice swings. At this point I knew I needed to step away from the hole, so I moved on and tried to dial back in for the rest of the holes, which was a challenge but I felt positive overall.
After getting through the course, I returned to the gator and knew I had to make a decision. It was possible to go around the gator and get what would likely be an automatic two. Tom had tried it a few times and actually showed it was possible to even ace it that way, although the percentages were much lower. I knew the better players (like Justin, Highlighter, etc) would go for the gator and likely make it, which means if I go around I’d be giving up perhaps 2 strokes in the tournament. But if I went for the gator and missed, the differential could be much higher and rack up much quicker. So I made the decision – I’d play it safe and hope I got lucky one of the rounds, and I’d try to make up for it with an ace on one of the other lower percentage holes.
Much to my amusement now (not necessarily day off), the gator hole would not be my downfall during the actual tournament. I was in the second group to head off in the tournament. In my group was Mandy, which is rare because we hardly ever get paired together in a tournament, and Mike and Nick. It turned out that these guys were in the middle of building a new course up the road in Atlantic City and were interested in holding tournaments there in the future. I’ve said it many times before, one of the best things about being involved in the minigolf world like this is meeting all different types of people and making connections. Was fun talking to them throughout the two rounds and as they recognized me as the winner from last year it was even fun giving them a bit of a target to go after as we played.
The first round started off fine – through 3 holes. Things took a turn for the worse on hole 4 where I bounced it off the giraffe’s foot – something I had not done in over 20 shots of practice and had to settle for a three. This was one of the holes I was hoping to get an ace on the field since I had done it quite a few times in practice. There went that plan. Although my plan on the gator worked, I was running dry on the ace front through 9 holes, having only gotten the first hole which was a near automatic one. The hippo was the 10th hole and this was another that I had done very well on in practice. I thought I had hit my ball the same way I had done the rest of the weekend but instead of going into the hippo’s mouth and coming out his butt to the hole (yes that is actually what happens) it managed to find a side hole in the tusk which I hadn’t even known existed until earlier in that morning since I had never missed. So now I had to get very intimate with the hippo given the ball had gone to the right and I had a very low percentage long-bank deuce shot in front of me, which I gave a run but ultimately missed and thus gave up what was likely another 2 strokes on the field.
I hated feeling this way with a round and half left to play but I definitely got the feeling that it wasn’t going to be my day at the links. Even through 10 holes I knew I was trailing the pack and it was going to be hard to make it up, so I switched my mindset to just trying to have the best rounds I could and let the chips lay where they do when it comes to final placement. I would have glimmer of hope just 2 holes later when I got a fortunate bounce and aced a hole that most people won’t but gave it right back by missing another easy ace then getting another three on hole 16. I ended the round at an even par which I knew would be at least 4 strokes off the lead and would turn out to be 6. I was excited for my co-Penguin Mandy who shot a 36 that round which put her in a decent position. Our other playing partners weren’t so lucky, shooting in the 40s but everyone was having fun.
I carried the “just have fun” mindset into the second round and started well with a pair of aces. While I didn’t ace the giraffe I had a much better shot and found myself, while not exactly tearing it up, at least cruising through 13 holes getting most of the aces I should. If there was any doubt the minigolf gods were not on my side that day, it was erased on hole 14, the pinball hole. The important thing to know about this hole is that if you happen to miss any of the 4 holes above in the pinball machine it shoots out the left side at the bottom of the machine and you are left with a long bank shot for a deuce but it’s 50/50 makeable. The way the ball comes out it is very near to the edge of the bottom section and we had wondered earlier if it would go out of bounds. However, through many practice rounds and watching others end up there we did not once see the ball bounce out of bounds – until it was my turn in the 2nd round. I wasn’t happy that I had missed the upper channel that I was aiming for but as my ball went by the last hole I wasn’t concerned until I watched how it exited, bounced around, bounced off the edge of the bottom section and rolled out of bounds – right to the feet of our friend, and Holey Moley episode champion, David Biggy. It probably goes without saying that I would miss the next putt and card a 4 on the hole, something I didn’t expect to see on any hole this tournament. I’d finish the round strong and come in with a 35, but that was just a kick in the groin as I didn’t even have a 3 in that round – just that one unlucky 4.
When the dust settled, I tied for 15th which was one my lowest non-major finishes in nearly a decade. I had been doing so well for so long at these smaller tournaments that it was a bit humbling to fall back like this. However, there were some positives that came out of it. Mandy continued to putt strong and only finished one stroke behind me. The difference was an ace I had on the 18th hole of the second round so it was close the whole way. Our playing partners improved greatly in the second round with Nick putting in an impressive 34 to take the lowest round of our group. I also would end up tied with my co-host Mr. Tee and we filmed a really fun bit around our own personal playoff for king of the Puttcast. The most important part is that I still had fun even if I was disappointed in my play. I got a chance to play some minigolf with folks I haven’t seen in many months, there’s always a lot of great banter at these competitions to enjoy and I played a bunch of courses for the website. From a total minigolf perspective it was a success of weekend.
As I write this, I had been looking forward to trying to get my form back this weekend at the Farmington Miniature Golf tournament which is another where I am looking to defend. However, right now we have a hurricane working on hitting us dead-on, a rarity for New England, so the tournament was canceled and I’ll have to wait another week for a crack at it. Luckily I’m still available to attend!
The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the writer and do not represent the World Minigolf Sport Federation (WMF), Minigolfnews.com or any other organization that the writer may be associated with unless expressly stated in the blog.
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