It was a sunny Saturday morning in the capital of Yunnan province in southwest China, and I was standing between half a dozen elite Chinese swimmers and a rag-tag bunch of would-be-professional miniature golfers. Charlie O'Connell was carrying an American flag for an opening ceremony parade for a professional miniature golf tournament in which the actor -- of Dude Where's My Car? and The Bachelor 15 minutes of fame -- was playing as a celebrity ringer.
While the swimmers stretched for their fifth 4,000-yard workout of the week at China's Colorado Springs, the 75 putters waited to start the race for the 19,500 RMB (about $2,900 US) in prize money at stake. The swimmers might have had the putters beat for athleticism and training intensity, but the new mini golf facility made the swimming pool look like a rust-dripping relic from the early years of the Communist sports machine (which it is).
If you're not familiar with the concept of miniature golf as a sport, you're not alone. There is a small community of people who have taken what the rest of us know as Saturday afternoon fun for kids and turned it into Friday-through-Sunday afternoon fun for grownups, with some cash winnings on the line. Total prize money for the US Mini Golf Open 2009 will be $7,000.
The man behind the US Mini Golf Open, and the Minigolf Masters National Championship, is Bob Detwiler, president of the U.S. Pro Mini Golf Association, and he was in attendance at the China Mini Golf Open at what is one of the first miniature golf courses in China, Hello! Haigeng Mini Golf Park. The $500,000 complex includes two 18-hole courses, a restaurant, tiki bar and mini golf teaching facilities. It's got waterfalls, bubbling brooks and a 15-foot-high man-made cave. Neatly manicured and brightly painted, it shines like a bag of candy in the Kunming sun. I would be uncomfortable taking the locals who've only seen this place to the Ypsilanti, Michigan, Putt-Putt course of my youth.
"We want to make Kunming the capital of miniature golf in China," says Detwiler, who recently became financially invested in the park.
They've got a decent head start. Miniature golf is nearly non-existent in China. The kitschy, family-oriented game seems like a great fit for the Chinese market, which is exactly why North Carolina business man Ed Knapp, developer and manager of the Haigeng park, got into this business. He opened the place in November, and it is the first of eight that he says the provincial government has green-lighted him to create in Yunnan.
How the park got built is not nearly as interesting as where it got built -- in China's golf capital, and on the site of one of its most important sports facilities. Just across Dianchi Lake is the site of two under-construction Pete Dye golf courses, and two minutes away is Nick Faldo's Kunming Lakeview Golf Club. About an hour away is Spring City Golf Resort, home to Golf Digest's picks for the best two courses in China. Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman are on their way to Kunming, too.
The mini golf park sits on the site of the Haigeng National Training Base, China's 36-year-old national high-altitude training center. Top athletes in sports from diving and swimming to soccer and track and field -- and from all over east Asia -- come here to train. Haigeng is a depressing maze of out-of-date cement-and-steel structures that do their best to dampen the beauty of the local Yunnan scenery. The first thing you see as you approach the site is what used to be a rusty gray water tower; it now sticks out above the new mini golf complex, painted a whimsical blue and yellow, and inside the top of the tower is one of the slickest little wine bars in China.
The main pro at this tournament was Olivia Prokopova., a 14-year-old from the Czech Republic who has played professionally since she was seven, wears putting shoes with her name embossed on the tongue and enjoys sponsorship from Czech supplement maker Starlife. She goes everywhere with her father/coach, who lets out a grizzly bear growl whenever she taps in a hole-in-one, which she does about one third of the time. Mr. Prokopova's theatrics seemed to really amuse the Chinese, who are generally more reserved as competitors or sports fans. The younger Prokopova won the tournament easily, taking home the 6,800-RMB first prize.
For Knapp, hosting the tournament, attracting pros to compete in Kunming and developing a relationship with Detwiler, miniature golf's biggest advocate, is a calculated business decision. "It will set me apart from anyone else who tries to copy me," he says -- and if Haigeng is as successful as he hopes it can be, it will definitely be copied. Ted Detwiler, son of Bob and a movie director working on a documentary about American mini golfers, thinks organizers could get more pros out next year.
"It's a wonderful part of China to visit," Detwiler said of Kunming, a popular destination for domestic tourists. "And the course is as nice as any other one I've seen."