Saturday: It begins. My eighth year on the British Minigolf Association tour starts with a trip to the seaside and the second Thanet Open in Margate. I’ve just got to get there. Setting off at 6am, I got a selection of badly organised road diversions, which add nearly twenty miles to my journey. The trance CD appeared to make my mood more aggressive, which was not the intention. I eventually made it bang on 9am and quick marched to the course, which had a short window of opportunity before the public converged. Other than Ed, I hadn’t seen any of the others since the beginning of December, so it was good to catch up. This weekend was going to be a lot less intense than the Italian experience. I have only putted once since as I haven’t been in the best of health.
This year’s edition has a major difference in that it is golf ball only. For me, personally, I have mixed views on this. At the end of the day, it is a putting competition so game on, but I much prefer a contest with the element of skill in choosing the minigolf ball. That is something I became totally enveloped in while in Monza and I certainly hope that as a minigolf tour, this is an exception. However, I will always support the clubs wishes. I spend my time learning new shots alongside the scribbled jargon in my notebook. The course itself was designed by the owner, James, and contains some exciting hole designs. I feel it could do with a few hours of loose felt removal as some parts were starting to bobble a bit. I was asked for a prediction for a winning score. “Ten under will be the mark,” I state.
Around 1pm, myself and Ed pop upstairs to have a quick bash at the arcade machines. Ed performs his usual trick on the Deal Or No Deal game and hits the jackpot. “How far do you think the tickets will stretch,” Ed asks. “Let’s find out,” I reply. I kept walking backwards, past the two very attractive woman playing a feisty game of air hockey until I could sit down in the photo booth, some ten metres away. As we would need to get around twenty times that to pick up anything substantial, Ed gave his tickets away to a young family and we headed to the pub. From there, we picked up two ultimately worthless bits of paper from the bookies and went to Ed’s car parked in Dreamland. “If you look at that,” Ed says, pointing at the disused theme park, “feasibly, that could be a perfect setting for C. S. I. Margate.” Quote of the year, contender number one. Strong contender.
After checking in, which had a slight misunderstanding on the booking (I booked for two, the Airbnb thought it was one), we made it into the room and our bunk beds. The plan for the night was to find a pub to watch Brighton – Watford before going for a curry with some of the tour’s characters. The pub was quiet, which meant I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by yelping every time the ball reached Watford’s penalty area. It was sadly adequate but another point. Scott hosted the curry and ran a quiz while we were waiting for the food. There were some revelations, in particular, the speed of a hippo. By the time I got to eat my Chicken Bhuna, Bombay Aloo and Naan Bread, there was just two points between all four teams. No winner was declared, no one ordered chips. The Ali Raj curry house is becoming a regular fixture when we visit, as it the Ales Of The Unexpected pub. We called it a night.
Sunday: Waking up, the weather had taken a severe turn downwards. Storm Ciara had arrived and taken away the glorious weather from the day before. It genuinely looks grim out but at least we’re indoors. Worry about it later. It does say something about the camaraderie on the tour in the last few years of the sheer numbers of participants travelling from as far as Manchester and Cardiff to the south east. Almost forty putters for early February is superb. It creates a real buzz. My eyes have got drawn to what Simon and Seve are wearing. They had seen the local football team yesterday and picked up the most incredible looking shirts, sponsored by the band The Libertines. Occasionally, football fashion gets it right, such as Coventry City’s tribute to the 2-Tone records era.
Onto the minigolf. My playing partners were two of the youngest, Matt Exall and Freddie Novis. Very slowly, we are gradually getting more juniors to take part. Over the last couple of years, we’ve had an influx of new players and a few have offspring. I’m keen to see not only what they can do now but in five years time. I make a steady start but I’m not hanging about as I’m feeling quite settled over my shot quickly. This comes to an end at the eighth when I fail to get through the pipe in my first two efforts and take a four. Margate is strange in the fact it is better to go through the trough rather than the pipe. It’s only then I actually realise that I am going too fast. I slow down and try to recover my round. Meanwhile, Matt and Freddie are setting about taking the course on. They have contrasting style. Matt is what I call a rammer and it’s really working for him. Everything is firm and hitting the back of the cup. Freddie has a slightly more reserved approach but that too is doing the job, he hits a hat-trick. I can only push them on and keep them level-headed. End of round one, I was third… in my group. Matt had a share of the lead, with Freddie a shot behind. They were beaming.
All things considered, I probably should have been further back than four shots. Apart from the disaster up the slope, I played well and don’t really need to alter anything. At the start of the second round, I tell Matt and Freddie to take it one shot at a time. The next step from having a great round is to have another one straight after. I get underway with an ace and after my ninth hole, I’m three under. Freddie struggles on one hole in particular but I’m very impressed by his resolve to brush it off. Matt shrugs off a few setbacks and sticks around par. My penultimate hole of the lap is the 12th, which has never been aced in competition. You can get close at best.
So I went and aced it.
I give myself the equivalent of a lap of honour. I didn’t even play the shot that well, it just fell off the slope that way. Unfortunately, I couldn’t back it up and found a pesky pipe rather than the trough but a 33 had put me back into some sort of contention. The leaderboard was remarkable, with six of the top seven looking to record their first strokeplay title. Leading was Chris Smith, three clear of Scott Lancley and one further clear of Seve Kukielka and Andrew Edmonds. It was shaping up to be one of the closest events I’ve ever been at.
Final round and I’m in the fourth to last group with Dave and Martyn. Early signs are that Ed is making a sprint for it and the word is out that Scott made a fine start. I know I won’t get in the prizes today so I’m just concentrating on putting well. I’m doing that, a number of tee shots being a ball roll away from an ace. Minigolf is a game of minute margins and this has happened before. Dave points to his scorecard and shows me that not only was he perfect on the 14th, he was unbelievably the same on the much tougher following two holes. As much as I want him to, he can’t quite complete the triple. Martyn receives a message from his partner about the weather outside, which had become so bad, the fire service were telling people to stay put. It understandably distracts him from the round.
With my role of inputting the scores, I miss all the drama of the closing holes as Scott finishes with a pair of 30’s to pick up the title on his home course, in his own tournament. It’s emotional. I know what it feels like to work so hard in running your own event with all the build up and preparation to then go out with expectations on yourself higher than normal. It’s a relief and Scott doesn’t hide that fact. Today, with the effort that everyone had made to be here in storm force winds, the real winners were all of us. We may not have medals to show for it but I dare say if this was a few years back, we wouldn’t have got this commitment. The new breed are investing themselves in the tour, it’s rubbing off on the old guard.
Leaving the building, we were sheltered by the seafront buildings but as I turned the corner to get to my car, the wind nearly pushed me into the road. Breaking out onto the motorway, these were the worst driving conditions I had ever experienced. I passed an Audi with its back windscreen smashed in. Small lakes were developing on the roads. Two of the main roads I would take were shut, one because the roof of an aircraft hangar threatened to blow into the traffic. Four hours back was not too bad. 2020 is off and running. I’ve got a strong feeling about this one.
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