I can probably sum up this blog post by replacing Happy Gilmore’s discontent with a clown with my own for a certain loop-de-loop and I’ll save myself 2,000 words. Sometimes life does imitate art.
But you know I like to weave a tale, so let’s see how I got to the point of hatred of a minigolf obstacle. It was the weekend after Labor Day, which means it was time to head North to Maine for the Lee Stoddard Dolphin Open. This was my 12th time playing in this tournament, the most of any tournament in my career. Since 2016 this tournament has seen a number of format variations for various reasons and this year would continue the trend. With the specter of COVID-19 hanging over everything, and Maine being a state that has strict travel restrictions, we knew it was going to be difficult for people to travel. Even for me, I wasn’t sure of Connecticut would be on the “approved” list to travel to Maine. As it was, Mandy was unable to make it because Maryland was not on the list at tournament time.
For the past two years, since Lee Stoddard passed away, I have been helping his wife Nancy administer the tournament. Together we decided that the best bet would be to keep things simple in 2020. We reduce the tournament back to a one-day format with eight rounds to help minimize needed travel. We also decided to keep payouts simple and based it on entry fees. This way no one would have to worry about hunting down sponsorship or anything else to great a large pot like we’ve had in the past. The good thing is that we knew the core groups of players would play the tournament no matter what, we just hoped that the simple format would bring in some others.
With that in mind, I arrived in Maine on Thursday with my family. We’ve been making this our late summer trip for a few years now and it was a bit special, and weird, this year as it was the first trip we’ve taken in over 6 months due to COVID. Overall the travel part wasn’t bad. We wore masks when we needed to, the hotel was just fine, and we ended up making most of our meals ourselves (the hotel has a nice little picnic area with charcoal pits and the weather was nice) so we didn’t have to bother much with restaurants. So while it was a factor to think about throughout the weekend, it wasn’t something what weighed too much on anyone’s minds.
With respect to the putting, I put in a normal amount of practice on Friday, arriving at the course just before noon. I would fall in with my buddie Highlighter and Justin Seymour, who you probably know already. They are my Connecticut minigolf buddies and Justin was the reigning champion of the tournament. Having played the course so much, a lot of the work during practice is just remembering the various speeds for the lines and making minor adjustments based on how the course has worn over the past year. Even with the best of upkeep this course has changed over the years, a couple of holes more dramatically so. The biggest we found was hole 8 “Fisherman House”, which is a two-level hole where you putt through the house up top. In the past this used to be a very reliable ace hole – a simple easy tap to let the ball run down the hill and through the house, couple bounces after it dropped off the edge and it was in. Now the top run has changed a bit with years of wear on the carpet and there’s a variety of breaks on top leading to way more disheartening sounds of the ball hitting the house than we are used to. So plenty of time was spent there trying to find the right mix of speed and starting position to minimize how many strokes you might give back on that hole. There’s not a ton of tricky deuce putts on the course but there are out there, and more so again with the wear as more breaks form, so I did have to make sure I spent a little time on every hole figuring out some things. It’s this minor bit of work that sets apart just having a good round in a minigolf tournament and making a push for the money.
I put in about 4 hours of solid practice before heading back to the family. With COVID impacting how easy it is to eat out, we grilled at the hotel for us and the two CT boys, then I spent the rest of the evening in the pool and playing with the kids. I knew I was going to rely on that bit of practice and my own knowledge of the course the next since most of my morning would be spent prepping for the administration of the tournament versus practicing.
Early Saturday morning rolls around and I was ready to go when the alarm went off, slipping out of the hotel room so as not to wake anyone. The air was crisp and chilly – perfect hoodie and shorts weather -the outfit of a true New Englander. Once at the course I made a very quick circuit, feeling pretty good about how I was hitting the ball. I would be once again using the “Maine Blueberry” blue Chromax ball that I first started using in 2016 when I won the tournament. It has done me a solid since then with three 2nd places to follow that win. It was then onto getting everything set up for the scoring and pairings. It was a small group, only 12 competitors but an incredibly close group of putters and I knew it was going to be difficult to gain any traction on any of them throughout the day. Every putt was going to count.
I set myself to go in the last pairing so I could work on the scores each round and just as luck would have it, it was a pairing with fellow Holey Moley contestant Randy Rice. Everything started out rosey as I aced the first two holes and chugged my way along to a first round 35. Scores like that have won the tournament before so I was happy with how things started. Things started to slide the other way over the next couple of rounds however as I struggled on the first few holes each round and ended up carding a 38 in each round. As we looked at the scores after, I was happy that I was tied for first but there seemed to be a theme among all the players. Everyone felt like they weren’t playing bad but the shots just weren’t dropping and the scores started to reflect that. There was a feeling that the first person to catch fire was going to pull away with the tournament.
After a quick lunch I was paired with my co-leader Evan Goodkowsky. He’s a local who’s played this tournament for years and we’ve been paired up a few times. I like his chatter when we play and It looked like things would be ok as I carded a 37 after going 25 holes without an ace and then a follow up 36. It seemed to be right where I needed to be. Feeling somewhat confident, I rolled into the last round of the afternoon. It was an up and down round through the 13th hole as I dropped some dumb shots but made them up with aces, including back-to-back on 12 and 13 bringing myself to even for the round. Then one of the worst disasters in the history of my Maine tournaments struck.
If you remember, I’m no stranger to putting up a crooked number in a tournament but rarely has that happened here just given the nature of the holes. Almost everything is recoverable and at worst you find yourself looking at a 4. The 14th hole is the loop-de-loop and it’s a pretty straightforward hole. Hit it through the loop with a decent speed. Too fast and you could get a bad bounce leaving you with no clean second shot but its also hard to go too slow through the loop. On the right of the loop there is a brick about 2 inches wide and then the left has a couple feet of brick – so you have to go through the loop. In my career, I’ve been good for missing the loop maybe once a tournament. It’s an aceable hole but the best way to do it is to get some movement on the ball by trying to come into the loop at an angle. All that really means is that it sometimes gets in our heads to be too tricky with this hole and that will come back to bite you. In minigolf, sometimes the best way to play a hole is how the public would and just punch it through the obstacle. This time around, I felt the wrath of the “pro” strategy and hit the brick to the right, sending it back to my feet and forcing me to tee up again for my second shot. I was still feeling ok that I could get through and card a 3 but I made the mistake of overcompensating and pulled my shot too far to the left, sending the ball back to my feet again. Now the pressure started to creep in and I stupidly didn’t step away from the tee box at this point. I just had it in my head that I needed to get through the loop but as I stood over the ball I had a weird feeling. The club felt foreign in my hand, I didn’t feel like I even knew how to draw it back for power and I had zero idea how to get it through the loop. Thus, its not surprising that I missed the loop for a third straight time.
Now it was time to step away – the lesson as always is that you should do that earlier than you think. We were the last group of the last round of the afternoon so I knew we wouldn’t be holding anyone up. I can’t even remember what I was thinking other than I just need to get the ball through the loop. Stepping back up to the tee was actually a bit terrifying and such a foreign feeling for me lately given all the experience I’ve gained. Providence was with me on this shot and I got through and was able to grind out then next putt for a 5. This didn’t put me in too deep a hole for the score but of course the next hole was the tricky Bobbin Buoys and wasn’t exactly the type of hole you’d wish to regain your confidence on. I proved that quickly by absolutely shanking my tee shot but at least I was able to recover and record a 3, which wasn’t terrible for that hole in general. More importantly I fought my way through the remainder of the round to finish with a 40. I was disappointed though as I saw I had dropped a few spots and because of how tight the scores were, it was almost all due to that one hole.
Luckily it was time for dinner, which was a needed reprieve although I couldn’t stop thinking about my mistake. It took me a long time to build up a bit of immunity to mistakes, knowing I couldn’t go back and fix them, but this one gnawed at me because of where it came. With how everyone was playing it was going to be hard to get back strokes and I didn’t gain much ground in the 7th round. I would be sitting quite a few strokes back from the leaders in the 8th round but high enough to be in the final foursome. The goal then was to put some pressure on the other three in the hopes I might be able to snag a higher spot. The second goal was to keep far enough ahead from the players behind me because there was a only a stroke or two difference between me and the chasers. With the way everyone’s scores were (the overall average of the winners was about 2 strokes higher than last year), there was a chance that a really good round would scoop up some places.
I started the final round in decent shape, recording an early ace as the rest of the group remained stagnant. I thought there might even be a chance at chasing them down until Justin hit the mid-point of the front 9 and turned on the jets with some aces. I tried not to scorecard watch but it was difficult as I was keeping score and trying to keep the leaders (and spectators) appraised of how the tops spots were moving. As a result, I knew by the 18th hole that I had caught up to Highlighter for the 3rd spot and could retain the tie if I matched him on that hole. I didn’t think I would need an ace so I felt like the pressure wasn’t fully on but tendrils of the past couple of rounds snuck in and I left my tee shot and my second shot well short. Watching Highlighter sink the 2 meant he held onto third and it also meant I was not in a tie for 4th with another CT putting pal, John O’Leary.
I was no stranger to playoffs at that tournament and my most famous one was a playoff for 8th place way back in the day. Per tradition, it’s a sudden death playoff starting on Bobbin Buoys. I was feeling good about my chances given my experience and that I had just aced that hole a round previous. John went first and carded a 3 and I calmly made my 2 to end the playoff and secure 4th place.
It is hard to say that I was truly happy with where I finished after several years of even better results but I’m happy that it’s still a money finish and anything top 5 feels good given the competition. More importantly is that I’ve been having consistently good finishes in the New England tournaments which helps to reinforce how far I have come skill-wise since I first started this competitive journey. I also decide it was time to retire the “Maine Blueberry.” It served its purpose for many years now and with the abuse from the bricks and the slip in finish, I think the magic may have left (and yes, I do have some superstitions when it comes to sports).
I’m also just happy to have a chance to play in tournaments this year, especially Maine where I think we’re all wondering how many years we might have left after Lee passed away. Given the overall age of a lot of courses we’re reaching that point where we are going to see a lot of turnover in ownership on those smaller ones and I hope they have some good succession plans in place so we can continue to enjoy them for years to come.
My next blog will cover the Matterhorn tournament which as the next weekend and didn’t give me much time to catch up between putting responsibilities!
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.