For many of us, mini-golf is a recreational activity played on circus- or dinosaur-themed courses during restless summer afternoons on childhood vacations. Any hole-in-ones — sunk with fluorescent-colored balls — are accidents of fate to be marveled at afterward over ice cream and arcade games.

But for pros like Matt McCaslin, who played his first round in kindergarten with his older brothers in his Memphis, Tennessee, neighborhood, miniature golf is much more: It’s a full-fledged competitive sport, complete with practice sessions, tournaments and cash purses worth thousands of dollars.

And the courses are more than carnival spectacles. “People imagine that the tournaments must be played with windmills and clowns and all of that, but our greens are actually similar to traditional golf courses, with undulations, rocks, tropical plants, palm trees and sand traps,” says Bob Detwiler, President of the United States ProMiniGolf Association (USPMGA), whose Hawaiian Rumble course in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, hosts the sport’s Master’s Tournament, which he established in the 1990s. “We’re like the Augusta of mini-golf.”

But unlike the Masters Tournament played at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, mini-golf competitions are inclusive of all genders, ages and nationalities. And to “go pro,” one need only join USPMGA, sign up for a tournament and place in the money. In fact, Olivia Prokopova, a 17-year-old from the Czech Republic, won the sport’s Masters in 2013. This year, McCaslin won the US Open, netting himself about $4,000 of a $12,000 purse — the largest Open prize thus far. 

Anyone can enter the main tournament, but there are also junior, senior and super senior (65+) divisions, as well as women’s and amateur competitions. “Mini-golf opens up the door for people who have the desire and determination to become good at a sport, but who aren’t 200 pounds and musclebound,” says Detwiler. “We have people from all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, teachers, truck drivers — you name it.”

Clearly, mini-golf is more than fun and games.

Who Becomes a Professional?

Matt McCaslin is a fairly typical player on the mini-golf tour: By day (or, actually, by night), he’s a bartender at a Raleigh, North Carolina, Marriott. (Though he has won about 30 tournaments in the last 12 years, the prize money is not nearly enough to live on.)

For McCaslin, mini golf was love at first putt, and even as a young kid he practiced hard — getting dropped at courses for six-hour stints—and competed in Junior Putt-Putt and “Super Saturday” competitions. Unlike traditional golf, which has never interested him, mini golf was always a passion.

In the 1990s, McCaslin was mostly dormant. But in 2002, he learned about the Master’s, which was being played only three hours away in Myrtle Beach and decided to check it out. He was instantly hooked. “I’ve got a competitive spirit in me,” he explains. And that streak apparently runs in the family as his two brothers are also mini-golf champions. “You see a lot of the same people out there each time, and it’s just because we all love the game.”

Nuances of the Sport

Like many others, McCaslin plays in both the USPMGA and Professional Putters Association (PPA) tours. And, yes, there is a distinction between putt-putt and miniature golf, though it’s subtle.

Essentially, putt-putt (which was particularly popular from the 1960s through 1990s) is designed for as many “aces” or hole-in-one scores as possible. “Putt-putt, which started in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in the late 50s, is what brought me to mini-golf,” McCaslin explains. And as far as the difference between the two sports: “Mini-golf will have bricks or rocks and, instead of carpet, good quality AstroTurf. It’s a little more complicated: You’re just trying to get the ball near the hole, whereas in putt-putt you want to make 9 to 12 hole-in-ones per round.” Still, he admits, “in both cases you’re hitting a ball into a hole, so it’s essentially the same thing.”

Training Day

Unlike most professional athletes, mini-golf pros don’t necessarily do P90X or hit the gym for hours at a time. McCaslin says there are people of all shapes and sizes on both tours. He personally stays in shape playing recreational basketball and being on his feet at work.

But nutrition can make a difference on the course, especially during tournaments that can last through 12 rounds over three days. “You’re out there on your legs all day, bending over, picking up balls,” he says. “You’ve got to eat decently: for breakfast, on a tournament day, I might typically have an omelette, banana, yogurt and orange juice.”

What’s Next

McCaslin and his fellow players are gearing up for at least three more tournaments this year: The Southern Putting Tour Championship in Goldsboro, North Carolina, the Putt Putt National Championship in Lake Charles, Louisiana (where first place is $10,000) and, of course, the Master’s.

Meanwhile, the sport continues to grow: “We’re getting more and more people watching,” enthuses Detwiler. “It’s a lot of fun and you meet people from all over the world. We’re on the verge of getting a title sponsor and are working on a TV show and a movie. It’s about to be really big.”

Practice Makes Perfect

2014 US Open of Mini Golf
Matt McCaslin on the 18th hole of the 2014 USPGA US Open. McCaslin won the tournament, his 14th US Open title since 2000.

No matter how much mini golf you've played, it’s still important to practice, says McCaslin, who offers up these tips for everyday mini-golfers:

  • Know the course. “Before a big tournament, usually I’ll take a day or two to go to that course and practice—about eight hours a day,” says McCaslin.

  • Learn exactly where you need to bank a shot. “Whether it's an aluminum rail or a type of brick, you learn through practice where to bank the shot to get the ball to respond the way you want.”

  • Watch your speed. “One of the most important parts of putting is speed. This holds true on hard and easy holes. On a challenging hole it's imperative to have the estimated speed correct so if you miss you have an easy second putt. You can turn an easy hole into a harrowing situation if you over or under hit it.”
And then, it is show time. Once the competition begins, explains McCaslin, you have to “put all the components together — getting the right speed and hitting the ball exactly where you want — to be successful.” And maybe, with practice and skill, you’ll win the championship – or at least a round of nachos at the snack bar after the game.