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Shhh! No clowning around

The world contains many little worlds, sub-worlds we'd

never suspect boasting devotion we'd never imagine.

For instance, this weekend in Austria, they're holding the miniature golf

world championships, replete with an Olympic-style opening ceremony wherein all

the countries march with flags and anthems and gravitas.

Yes, we're represented.

"Our uniforms have the flag of the United States in silk, blue pants, blue

shorts, navy blue shirt, flag in silk on the left side," Vance Randall said.

"Cost about $5,000 or $6,000."

After all, Randall, 66, won the Professional Putters Association's "Putter

of the Decade" for the 1960s in a country that doesn't necessarily realize it

always has a reigning Putter of the Decade. He won first-year induction into

the Professional Putters Hall of Fame in Fayetteville, N.C., in a country that

doesn't necessarily realize it has a Professional Putters Hall of Fame.

Yet our climb in Austria remains profoundly uphill, for in general, the

Europeans take the sport much more seriously than do we. Why, the Danes

themselves know our Tom Dixon of Kansas City better than do we. "Cowboy Tom!"

they've called out to him after competitive putts.

And the Germans, don't even get started on the Germans.

"Germany has insulated bags with a thermostat on it," Bob Detwiler of

Myrtle Beach, S.C., said before he traversed the Atlantic. "And they hook it up

to a car battery so you can set the temperature on it exactly as you want it.

Whatever it's set at, all the balls will be at the same temperature and you can

tell which ball you can use for a hole."

Helps with ball speed, as we all know.

And the British. The British have their own mini-golf association and their

own British Open set for September. At Stratford-upon-Avon. Hometown of one

Bill Shakespeare.

As for the 293 million Americans, your average Latvia-raised medical

professional turned Wisconsinite with a miniature golf course in the yard,

Astra Miglane-Stanwyck, laments ever so gently. She notices ample talent among

American youth, she said, but simply no societal oomph.

If only we'd emphasize the game more, she said, "We'd have a heck of a

different game in this country."

Still, Detwiler said, "When you go over there to represent your country,

it's pretty important."

And, Randall said: "Prestige motivates a lot of people. A lot of people on

our tour are looking forward to getting into the Hall of Fame. I mean, it's a

big deal."

Who knew? The putting sub-world, the sport they used to play like mad on

Manhattan rooftops in the 1930s, has two American tours and many American

idiosyncrasies.

The tours include the Pro Putters Association, dating to the 1950s, and

younger U.S. Pro Mini-Golf Association that stopped through Manhattan last

weekend, dating to the 1990s.

The idiosyncrasies include that one trio of brothers, the McCaslins, reign

on the USPMGA tour, and that when Matt and Danny finished 1-2 in the U.S. Open

in May in Myrtle Beach, they had to collect their trophies and their checks and

scurry three hours up the highway back to Cary, N.C., near Raleigh.

They had to work. Olive Garden. Their managers needed them. Mother's Day.

Then there's that recent event with six rounds on six different courses,

four in Illinois and two in Wisconsin. There, the participants hopped into a

car and drove between rounds, sometimes on the interstate, but luckily, the Six

Flags amusement park traffic proved not too severe. There, tour vice president

Gary Shiff of Yonkers won in a fur-flying struggle after both leading by six

and trailing by five.

There's a Skins competition.

It's in Connecticut.

Then there's the planet's lone rodeo cowboy/truck driver/professional

putter.

As a former rodeo cowboy, Dixon of Kansas City, nowadays 52, has broken his

wrist 13 times, his arm five times, his neck twice, and his head once. (It

split open.) Large mammals have kicked him in the face, stepped on him and

rolled over him, sometimes all three in the same night. In 1976, he was

pronounced dead after a truck accident near Nashville that killed the driver.

(Dixon had been asleep in the cabin bunk.)

Reached at a Columbus, Ohio, truck stop as he delivered coconut in his

68-foot Kenilworth T-2000 to a candy manufacturer in Abilene, Kan., Dixon took

time out from a PGA video game to prove that he alone among the 6 billion can

draw the keen parallels between bronco-bucking and elite putting.

"On the rodeo circuit, you've got to learn what horse you're gonna be on,

write a lot of stuff down," he said. For instance, if you ever rode this big

ol' beast named "Clydesdale," you'd know he'd make three big jumps, "And he'd

hit that third turn and you wouldn't want to be on his back 'cause he'd usually

toss you right there, boom, and you'd have to hope and pray."

While no living mammals dot the putting tour, and, no, they don't use

courses with windmill or clown holes, you'd better take meticulous notes on,

say, No. 16 at Hawaiian Rumble in Myrtle Beach, site of both the USPMGA's major

tournaments, the U.S. Open (May) and the Masters National (October).

"You've got to be perfect on it to make a hole-in-one because you're going

uphill and it curves, breaks off to the left, so you got to know what you're

doing with it," Dixon said.

He's ranked No. 121 out of 60,000 globally, he said, so he must know what

he's doing with it.

Who knew? A sub-world tour calendar so chockablock with events that Dixon

didn't get home from June to August alighted last weekend for the New York City

Open at the Pier 25 course on Lower Manhattan's west edge.

Thirty-seven players, some professional, some amateur, some who saw a

feature that day on "Good Morning America" and decided to amble out, played

four rounds across three-plus hours. Soon they shrank to 36, with one gone

early toward a prior commitment.

They played the early holes past the decorative huge gnome in the corner.

They played No. 11 beside the broken snowman. They played in shorts or

rolled-up jeans and sneakers or topsiders. The runner-up, a gathering force on

tour, sported bare midriff.

Her given name: Robin Ventura. Her recent cachet: winner, 2005 tour stop in

Sedona, Ariz.

They played beside obnoxious motorcycles ripping through the West Side

Highway, across from a sunset over Jersey City, under "My Cherie Amour" wafting

out of the overhead speakers.

When they finished, Shiff, event organizer, presented Kevin Lacey of

Cincinnati with the $300 first prize, Ventura the $250 second. A fierce

four-hole playoff decided the $100 fifth place in favor of gritty Pennsylvanian

William Dunkle, a former national junior champion still years away from

voting.

Who knew? Something about this sub-world, though: If you watch Lacey and

Ventura and third-place pro Elmer Lawson play, you do spot something uncanny.

Call it the sheen of precise talent. You may not be able to define it, but

you know it when you see it. There's a mastery almost resonant in the speed of

the golf ball.

After all, players often arrive days early and practice from perhaps 9 a.m.

to 9 p.m., excepting meal and bathroom breaks. Randall, the Hall of Famer from

Asheville, N.C., will hit 2,000 balls per week: "I'm always trying to learn a

new shot nobody else knows."

Dixon keeps the corner of his eye alert for small packs of players

following him and spying on him during practice rounds. "I get in the

tournament, I'll change my shots," he said. "They say, 'You didn't do that in

practice!'"

Some people occasionally toss down clubs. Some break clubs. Some throw

balls in to little faux ponds.

"I learned a long time ago, I love to see somebody throw a putter 'cause I

know I've got him whipped," Randall said.

Randall, who used to coach girls basketball and teach driver's ed in

Chattanooga - "Oh, I've been in ditches and fields" - also used to practice

beside a four-lane highway in Hickson, Tenn. "I trained myself on the side of

the road with cars and people yelling at me," he said. "And I'd never hear 'em

... If a shotgun was shot, I would never hear it."

It's nothing less than the beguiling human hunt for precision.

Said Miglane-Stanwyck: "I always loved geometry, physics, chemistry,

biology. I loved exact sciences. I love working on puzzles."

Explaining her U.S. Open struggles in May - she finished ninth - she said:

"Quite frankly, I started it really lousy, the first two rounds. It's probably

good to know that females have hormonal surges at certain times and that was

affecting me and eventually, I was able to get myself together. Female

physiology does play a role in the game."

Such brittle precision divides into two strands, the two tours, which play

different styles of courses. Recently Danny McCaslin, having finished No. 2 in

the 2005 U.S. Open and won two Masters on the mini-golf tour, ventured to the

Pro Putters Tour's nationals in Louisville, but he did not play the event.

Having played so much mini-golf, with its concentration on second shots and

playing caroms off bricks and its sand and water and doglegs and such, he just

didn't feel comfortable enough for the competitive heat of Putt-Putt, with its

concentration on lining up holes-in-one.

He will, however, feel comfortable in a putting match ESPN2 arranged for

Monday in Dallas, where he'll oppose Ben Crane, statistically the PGA Tour's

No. 1 putter of 2005.

"It should be interesting," McCaslin said. "But I should be able to take

care of business. He's probably got a better stroke than I do, but the thing is

when you go out there, you've got to know how to practice. He doesn't know how

to practice Putt-Putt."

Even Tiger Woods, McCaslin stressed, would struggle on a putting tour. At

first, anyway.

Who knew? And who knew this sub-world would feature so much, how to say ...

mirth?

The combatants often seem so mirthful.

Shiff, in one statement of mirth, said, "It's been at least seven years

since I've three-putted on a regular golf course now."

Miglane-Stanwyck has spread joy even to that most cheerless of places, the

airport security-check area. "When my bag goes through the screening," she

said, "you see long faces, confused looks" on the screeners, "because, you

know, you have 200 balls in there."

"I explain," she said. "Sometimes, I demonstrate."

And listeners grow edified.

After all, the players couldn't be doing it for the money. As Shiff says

earnestly, "There's some people who've won in excess of 10,000 in one year,"

and while the Pro Putters Web site notes Randall has won $70,000 in four-plus

competitive decades, he insists it's actually well more than $100,000.

"I played for more money than Sam Snead in 1960," he said.

Then the spectators started flocking to regular golf, so much more

captivating to the human eye than mini-golf, even if the Danes have called out

for "Cowboy Tom."

Something about the hunt for precision compels the McCaslin brothers to

drive 11� June hours from North Carolina to Hartford for a tournament, and it

moves Shiff to spend the eve of a tournament carefully picturing all the holes,

as surely he has done this very weekend over there in Mozart's homeland.

"I get to see nicely groomed miniature golf courses, a lot of them like a

little tropical paradise," Shiff said. "That's not a bad thing to think about

while you're falling asleep."

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