Saturday 15th August: After 167 long days without a tournament, during which time the world has changed forever and Snoop Dogg started advertising an app for fast food, we were back. For a long time, it would seem that my club open would see the tour restart at the end of August but with courses reopening, the one with the largest amount of real estate got the honour and the double header of the Cambridgeshire and Essex Open and British Doubles. Dunton Hills is a course I have done well at previously, with four straight runner-up spots and a win in the doubles. Despite that, I am not a fan. Every year, the rumours crop up that it will be the last time we play here but every year, we’re back again. It doesn’t help that there is no longer a kitchen or bar on site.
The excitement of playing and seeing everyone again is tempered by my alarm set for 5am. It’s not my turn to drive however as Ed is dropping by to pick me up in his new wheels. The drive down is a mixture of catching up, looking at clouds and reassuring Ed that the course is as tough as they say. “Welcome to Kosovo-lite”, I say as we roll in. We now have four hours to get acquainted. Which is spent in and out of wet weather clothing.
My first playing partner of the restart is one of the oldest on the tour, Brian, who is also one of the best dressed, resplendent in what I believe is a fedora. We tentatively greet with elbow bumps, which appears to be choice of welcome for the British Minigolf Association. Over the summer and lockdown, I have done all kinds of putting at home, from trying to get three balls in a jar down my stairs to Putt18. Dunton Hills recreates none of that. The borders are savage, the stimp meter must be quicker than putting on ice with only the foliage slowing the ball down in places. A run of two’s of considerable length is the hope of us all.
Brian sets the tone early with a couple of monster par saves and I hope that I can follow his example. Sadly for me, bogey followed bogey and before long, I had nine in a row. Straight away, I was fighting to save a round. I’ve considered 48 to be a reasonable guess as an expected score here, so a nice run at the end gave me a 47, which was six back from the ruler of Dunton Hills, and most other tracks, Michael. Work to be done and at the start of round 2, I am in real trouble. A run of eight lip outs in just four holes completely destroys me. I have never experienced a concentrated spell of awful luck like this before. Ever. Despite this, I recover well, only dropping three more in the final 12 holes. That sounds bad. It really isn’t. It could have been so much worse than 48.
At this point, the weather, which had been overcast at best, turned cataclysmic. Approximately forty millimetres of rain fell in the same amount of minutes. The course lay under water. The car park had a whirlpool above the drain. The guttering looked like Angel Falls. “Hold a tournament in the middle of August,” I japed. The break allowed me to chat to a few of the other players about how they’ve been, which was a humbling experience. Whereas I have carried on working throughout as farming is one of those industries almost pandemic proof, a most of the others have been affected. Jobs gone, situation changed, pay cuts. However I felt the putting had gone today, it simply didn’t matter anymore. Everything that we had wanted 2020 to be back in January was never going to come to fruition. I felt numb.
Incredibly, with a little help from the staff and a few hardy souls, the course cleared and we had a window of an hour before the next deluge came in. I was back in 21st. A position I had only been worse in once before in seven years. I was joined by Scott and Will for final stanza. We checked on each other’s loved ones as we played and last, I found a groove. An ace here is the rarest of birds and my hit rate was about one every five rounds. That is not a typo. I proceeded to get two in a round and with the final three holes for me being the 6th to 8th, all two’s would get me a 38. I think I suddenly realised just what I was about to do and my putter said not today. I managed a 40, which was still my best here and good enough for a share of tenth. Michael was doing Michael things and shot an unbelievable 36. That is not human. You have to play here to understand that should not happen at Dunton Hills.
With all the trepidation of the issues with Covid-19 and what it can do, as a group, the forty of us that took part dealt with the situation in the right way. We respected that there were guidelines and whatever went before had to change. I have no idea if we will ever go back how we were but we have now made a start on how we are. Minigolf was back. Ed and myself made the drive back to mine for a few beers, some Putt18 and an early night. The one thing I had forgot was just how long and punishing a day of minigolf could be.
Sunday 16th August: 6am. That’s a lay in. After feeding my neighbours cat, who had made itself at home on the sofa, it was back down the eighty miles for another go at Dunton Hills. Today was the doubles, which became my first title back in 2016 with Nuno, who had gone back to Portugal during the summer. For one reason or another, it hadn’t quite happened since but with Ed, we both had a fair understanding of how each other played. Today, the weather was a mild improvement but far from the searing temperatures we had reached earlier in the week. In Britain, we just can’t find a temperature to suit all.
We settled on the team name of De La Hole, as a tribute to the Kisstory Bingo game we often played, even giving ourselves the monikers of Puff Pastry and 2Pac O’Doughnuts. By the way, this wasn’t the worst team name out there. Sean said, “you two are like an old married couple”, which was good, seeing as we were in a group with two married couples and a father, son partnership. We started off with the Fincher’s, Dave and Cameron. The youngster had made such an impression before lockdown, with his pace and control of shot. The matchplay format meant that you had to respect every single one putting. Luckily, we raced off into a lead we never relinquished and were first off the course. “Always a good feeling when you get to sit down first,” I muttered to Ed. “It could also be a bad sign too,” he replied.
Potentially, our toughest group match was next against Chris and Brenda, who have done well here in the past. Again, we make a hot start and despite dropping a hole early on, that’s two for two and top of our group. Winning the group should keep us from competing against the group of death winners, where last year’s top three had all been drawn together. All we had to do was avoid defeat against David and Marion, who knocked me out of this in sudden death in 2018. Our rankings say this should be comfortable, but it is anything but. We find ourselves behind early and need to pull a few rabbits out of the hat. We find form at the right time with our closest match so far, a 2 and 1 win. Just like that, we’re through to the quarter final.
There were so many good pairings left in the medal section and Seve and Simon represented an up and coming dangerous pair. Seve can count himself unfortunate never to have won a pro title, although he is dominating the Welsh club scene. We instantly know we are in a match and the lead changes hands several times. With two to play, we take the lead and go to the last one up. With our opponents taking a three on one of the more straightforward holes, we just need to match it. I play the tee shot a little strong but have faith in Ed to leave the ball next to the hole from the bottom of the slope. He repays that faith by only getting halfway to the cup before rolling back to his feet. I have to hit a putt for the match. I had a feel for the line but reduced the angle as I was going to play this firm. As it was on its way, I just knew it was good. A hard fought match but we’re there in the semi-final.
Next on our march to glory were Sean and Marc, the most experienced pair in the event. Marc had spent some significant time in the run up to the event and Sean was always one of the big three when I started playing. Whatever we had done before, we had to go up a level. What followed was classic matchplay, after three holes, both teams had the lead at some point. And it continued, back and forth like prize fighters. With two remaining, we make a two at the first, slamming the pressure on, especially when Sean’s tee shot clips the border and hops over the narrow ledge. Marc faces a tricky putt which they discuss at length. From the notes I had made over the last five years, I knew they had a misread, Ed even looked across and gave me that look, and so it proved. One up, one to play. Our opponents combine for an excellent two so we would have to take this out or go to extra holes. Ed’s shot leaves me with a putt around thirteen feet but short. He kept apologising but I knew I had this one. Smooth shot, outside right. I swept a stone from my path and hovered over the ball. It ran true into the left centre. I roared and ran to Ed. What a match.
It should have been the final with that quality but faced Michael and Will, the defending champions, in the actual final. Simply put, no mistakes and we might have a chance. The door was left ajar as Michael uncharacteristically missed from inside six feet at the second. Ed left it in the same post code as the semi final and we had the same result. One up. Where was the tidal bore from yesterday when we needed it. The excitement of going ahead proved too much for us as the title holders drew level and then took the lead. In the click of the fingers, the door was roundhoused shut. At dormy three, Michael faced a huge putt in the 16th but I’ve seen this movie a thousand times before. He rolled in the shot with nonchalance, I through my hands up and emptied my pockets. “I have nothing left,” I exclaimed. Ed’s effort with the ace missed left. We were done but were coming home with the silver.
However we thought we had performed over the weekend, it was quite something to be taking part in an activity we love that just six or seven months previously, we could do any time we pleased. The down period taught me that I was fortunate to have a routine, although so much about my inner thoughts and workings had immeasurably changed. The character of the tour is still resolute.
Saturday 29th August: For many months during the down period, it looked for a long time as if the Sussex Wasps Open, my own club event, would welcome the tour back. The battle was to ensure that the event would go ahead full stop. The host course in Peterborough didn’t open until the first week in July and at that point, there was just a date in the diary and the promise I would get some people along to play. I’ve had a very good relationship with the owners in the five years its been in existence and like with much else in the world today, 2020 will be the biggest test.
For a number of weeks, I would go and practice as well as making constant risk assessments. Peterborough has probably the smallest playing area of all courses, but to my surprise, was larger than I imagined. To start with, there are only twelve holes, so the first real decision was do we limit numbers, considering in the past, we have played when the public have as well. I would need to convince the owners of how many were coming to play. I threw myself fully into the task, just hoping that everyone was on my side. Organising this was far tougher than any of the previous three attempts and I could not chance everything. I am grateful to my two lieutenants in the club, Derek and Ed, for their support.
Fast forward to today. Twenty-eight have entered, of which twenty are practicing for the day. The owners agreed to shut the course off for us. The weather hell from a fortnight earlier was left there and despite the late drizzle, my mum had a word with those that control these things and we were dry. The sight of people I knew thanking for me for getting this over the line is going to live long. We haven’t even got to game day yet. Derek and his son, Anton, were my houseguests for the night. I cooked my regular Wasps Open pre-event meal of a home made kebab with added home made tzatziki, while we sang happy birthday down the phone to my niece, Ruby, who turned eight today. I won’t lie. I was nervous about gathering minigolfers from across the land to take part in area around the size of two tennis courts. Everyone had made it easier for me to run. Payment had been done early. There was a genuine interest to get back playing again. After a couple of beers at the local, I slept well.
Sunday 30th August: The alarm went off, I flung the curtains back to reveal a cloudless sky. Content mode. Thankfully, no one had dropped out this year so everything was going for me. We arrived around half an hour before the course was due to open and weren’t the first there. Once inside, Shannon on the desk was about to have her easiest day so far as I ushered through the contestants for half an hour warm up. I set up the laptop for my scorers, Donna and Poppy, to input scores but the computer is probably on its last legs so takes about quarter of an hour to open a file.
My playing partners for the first three rounds were the newcomers, Balazs and Zita, who are from North London via Hungary. Balazs had got the bug for minigolf having made his debut at Dunton Hills. The trick with succeeding at Peterborough was to make the aces in the mid-section and steady the ship for the rest of it. I made the most of it with a 21 to take the lead by one. Balazs impressed me with how quickly he was getting to grips with the minigolf balls I sold him on Saturday. He even borrowed a minigolf putter for the day.
Despite leading, the following pack were close by, close enough that we could finally have our first year without a runaway winner, like I was one year earlier. Over the next two rounds, both Balazs and Zita made their first ever aces in tournament play. The joy of seeing that first hole in one on their face took me back to the fifth hole at Splash Point in 2013. It was an absolute pleasure to witness their moments in history. With a round to go, Simon had equalled my best of the day before Seve set the tournament record with a 20, to lead by one. Outside the top four of Seve, myself, Ed and Simon, the battle for the minor rosettes and choice of better prizes was one of the closest I had seen.
With the groups reordered, we began the last round at 1pm. Whatever happened now, we were going to get our close finish. At this time, Ed, who was three back, had the least to lose. I had a title to defend, Seve had a first title to win. It was tense. The speed of play was commendable and suited me. The first glimpse of a chink in Seve’s armour came at the second, where he missed the rebound point on the rock but made a sensational recovery for the par. “That’s the tournament, right there,” I said to Ed. The battle would continue. The fifth provided a little chaos in the calm. Ed made an ace to pick up an earlier drop, I made a par. Seve didn’t make the tunnel, so we were now level. The next ramped up the intensity as we all made aces. This was turning into one of the best fights I had been involved in at a tournament.
At the eighth, Ed closed to one with a well struck ace up the hill. I followed him in for a perfect set of four bullets. Seve couldn’t match it so I now had the lead. The last of the genuine ace opportunities was the ninth before the trickiest closing three holes on tour. Incredibly scenes as we all brushed the lip to remain as we were. Although my tee shot didn’t end up that close on the tenth, it was still good enough for the two. Steve -8, Seve -7, Ed -6. Two to play. The bridge hole had become one of the most famous on tour due to the final destination being completely out of your hands after it leaves the putter. Any score was possible, as it turned out, even an ace as David had proved for the first time in the competition’s history. Ed calmly picked up a two. I stepped up and hit a true putt off the right of the bridge. The fortune favoured the Sheila as I clipped the extremities of two rocks and stayed out of the water. I made the three-foot putt across the rough felt and almost felt home. Seve got unlucky and went out of bounds twice before taking a five. In the blink of an eye, everything had changed. I safely finished with a par to retain the Margaret Lovell Memorial Shield. The relief was incredible. My first thoughts were to talk to Seve. His time will come. It has to. He is too good to not win a title but like everyone, it will not get given to you. You have to earn it. You have to cross that finish line yourself.
Many thoughts have raced through my head over the last week. I got my tournament over and done with. I hadn’t enjoyed putting it together but the competition and the comments I received afterwards were more than pleasurable. In the run up, I was made aware of comments referring to my club as hosting one of the lesser events on tour. Genuinely, where do people get off. I’ve aspired during my time in minigolf to ensure that all players and clubs were, within reasonable expectation, treated equally. I feel sad that parity is a long way off if that is how people are looking down their noses at other hard working clubs who contribute just as much as others. Don’t ever refer to an event or club that I run as a lesser event again.
There will be some difficult times ahead, not only for the tour but life in general. In Britain, cases of Covid-19 have stabilised but are on the increase again. The furlough scheme comes to end in the upcoming weeks and we will never know the real impact of the pandemic, probably for a couple of years yet. We are a small organisation and we need to support and help each other along, whether it be attending or publicising. Every little helps and my god, do we ever need walk the path right now.
At least minigolf in competitive form is back and there is so much of it to follow.
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.