There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Meet Buddy, Dave, and Rusty Taylor: the greatest golf dynasty you never heard of.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
“This is the biggest putt of my life!” Rusty Taylor declares breathlessly, trying, without much success, to stay calm.
Ahead of him, the 16th hole of the championship course in Charlottesville, Va., beckons, almost taunting him to make it. To sink the putt, he knows, he must navigate the ball past two treacherous sets of hazards. The actual hole sits at the far end of the green, on a plateau. Uphill.
Rusty wipes his hands on his shorts, sopping the sheen of sweat from his palms. He brushes some debris from his ball’s intended path. Despite the care he takes, he moves quickly. He reckons that if he moves any slower, his concentration will get away from him.
A lot is at stake for the young pro. So far this year—only his second on the professional circuit—Rusty, 18, has edged closer to victory with each successive tournament, but he has yet to win. Now, after three rounds of play, he is within one stroke of first place, with a remarkable 20 under par. If he makes this putt in one stroke, he could take the tournament.
Rusty stares down the shaft of his favorite Odyssey putter, his toes dancing nervously inside his sneakers. The only time he completely stops moving is just after he putts. Then, he stands frozen, transfixed, watching the ball as it rolls up the incline, turns left, and glides around the top lip of the cup before coming to rest a couple of inches beyond it.
Usually, when Rusty misses a big shot, he slaps his thigh hard a few times or bangs his putter on the ground. But this time, he merely sighs. He takes his second stroke, knocking the ball into the cup. Tersely, efficiently, he pars the final two holes, then heads quickly for the clubhouse to await his final fate.
There, on the leader board, neatly hand-printed in thick black marker, Rusty finds at least some momentary solace:
Taylor, Rusty 117
Taylor, Dave 119
Taylor, Buddy 126
The highest scorer is Rusty’s grandfather, Buddy, 63, the patriarch of the family, who by rights ought to have earned a place of honor on the senior tour by now, except that there is no permanent senior tour. Next is Rusty’s father, Dave, 42, who himself turned pro when he was just 15. And then there’s Rusty himself, whose tally of 117, after four rounds, puts him in first place.
For now. Out on the course, there are still three players who can beat his score: his pal Bart Bason, Ken Cook, and Darrell Anderson. Bason, a baby-faced 23-year-old from Gibsonville, N.C., is not having such a good round, Rusty hears. Cook and Anderson, both seasoned competitors from Richmond, Va., are doing better. But both will need to play exceptionally well to knock off Rusty.
Cook quickly falls out of contention. But Anderson pulls within a stroke and heads for the 18th hole, where Rusty has taken up position. He watches silently, arms folded, legs apart. Occasionally, he chews a nail. Rusty is counting on the fact that an ace on the 18th is damned near impossible. That’s because the 18th hole is unusually difficult. It’s a two-story affair, with one green stacked on top of the other. At the back of the first green is a metal chute. To get the ball in the hole, a competitor must fire it down the first fairway, up the chute, and onto the top green, where the actual hole is located. Once on the top level, the
ball almost never rolls into the cup without another stroke.
Anderson, 48, approaches the tee wearing a straw hat and thick plastic eyeglasses. He bends his knees, folds his 6-foot-8 frame over his putter, and prepares to take his shot, completely unperturbed by the utterly rude twosome playing an adjacent hole. Cavalierly tossing their oversized plastic putters over the side of the green, the pair squeal like preschoolers. In fact, they are preschoolers.
Anderson smacks the ball with just enough force to send it up to the top green, where it quickly starts to lose momentum. As the ball lopes ever more slowly toward the hole, Anderson pokes the air with his putter, willing the ball to drop.
And it drops.
Rusty lingers long enough to watch Cook’s ball shoot up onto the second tier and stop several inches short of the cup. So it will be a one-on-one, made-for-TV kind of playoff. The tyro Taylor versus the veteran Anderson. “The young buck and the thoroughbred,” quips Bason.
On a bench near the 18th hole, Buddy Taylor sits down and calmly surveys the clot of putters tallying their scores. With the playoff looming, the tension around the clubhouse is so thick you could cut it with a plastic picnic knife. “Just another day at the Putt-Putt,” Buddy observes sagely.
Easy for him to say. Buddy has been to countless championship tournaments, and he will go to countless more. Over the past 40 years, in fact, there’s scarcely been a miniature golf tournament within driving distance of the family stomping grounds in southern Maryland that Buddy, his children, or his grandchildren haven’t played in. Along the way, the Taylors have transformed what for many is merely a campy pastime into a defining family passion.
Their sport, Putt-Putt—please do not confuse it with those rinky-dink Dutch-windmill, shoot-the-ball-into-the-alligator’s-mouth-and-it-comes-out-its-ass mini-golf attractions—may not get as much respect as regular golf, or bowling, or even shuffleboard. But that’s OK with the Taylors. They don’t play for fame, or profit, or even fun. They play because they’re true competitors. They like to win.
And they do.
It was the summer of 1957, and about a hundred men dressed in brightly colored shirts and jaunty straw hats had descended on Fayetteville, N.C., for the first national Putt-Putt golf tournament. The competition got under way after the Miss Putt-Putt pageant: Young women from all over the country were there to take part. But the real beauty that had caught everyone’s eye was the spanking new Cadillac Fleetwood, complete with signature tail fins and whitewall tires, that stood in the Putt-Putt parking lot. The winner of the tournament would take the Caddy home.
Don Clayton, a Fayetteville native, had built the world’s first Putt-Putt golf course in town just three years earlier. Clayton, then 28, was a burned-out insurance executive whose doctor had ordered him to take a month off due to exhaustion. For relaxation, he and his dad played a local miniature golf course, but Clayton grew so frustrated with the green-dyed, sawdust course, he decided to spend the rest of his sabbatical building his own. It was, as history would record, a fateful decision.
“We rode around looking for a location,” recalls Don Clayton’s first wife, Kathryn “Cub” Clayton, in a recent interview. “We discovered one the next day. Don had leased it by 10 o’clock that morning. He started clearing pecan trees. That night he and I sat down at the breakfast table and designed holes on 3-by-5 cards.”
Don Clayton, who died in 1996 of an aortic aneurysm, despised mini-golf gimmicks like windmills and creche-sized Kremlins because he regarded them as “trick shots.” He wanted to create a game based on skill, not luck. The thinking man’s miniature golf course.
Thus was born the first Putt-Putt course; the franchise today boasts 144 different patented hole designs. Each hole is a par 2, although, theoretically at least, an ace is possible at every one. Each hole consists of a green carpet, once made of goat hair, now made of polypropylene olefin, and orange bump boards, originally made of wood, now made of aluminum. The contours of the green, combined with various hazards, such as blocks, triangles, or pipes, make each hole a particular challenge. One hole, for instance, features an undulating green with the cup on the back side of one of the hills. Because the hole is placed at an angle, if you hit the ball too hard, it will bounce out of the cup; too soft, and it won’t make it over the hill.
Over the years, Godzilla, flying saucers, and jungle animals invaded other mini-links. But Putt-Putt stood fast against the kitschy onslaught. Once in a while, in a baldly economic bid to hold the interest of their littlest customers, Putt-Putt course owners would deign to introduce fake safari animals. But they were always kept safely off the green, consigned strictly to the sidelines.
In 1954, Don Clayton’s no-frills, true-playing greens were an instant success. He built a second course in two weeks and never sold insurance again. He grew Putt-Putt into one of the great American franchises, the McDonald’s of mini-golf. These days, Putt-Putt pulls in annual revenues of about $100 million. Puny by comparison to bowling, for example, but not bad considering that the sport can be played without shoes.
There are more than 200 Putt-Putt franchises in the United States, but that’s nothing compared with the roughly 1,000 courses flung out across the rest of the world, from Bali to Beirut. And unlike other American sports, such as baseball—with its World Series that is not a world series at all—Putt-Putt welcomes foreigners to its championship competitions. In 1977, a South African named Eugene Carter won the world championship. It is, however, a fact that Americans tend to dominate the elite championship echelons of the game.
Putt-Putt also tends to be a white man’s sport. There isn’t enough interest to support an ongoing, separate ladies’ tour; pro tournaments are consequently coed, although there are almost no female pros. And although there have been great black putters in the past, right now, the top players are all white. The absence of women, or a Tiger Woods of Putt-Putt, may stem from the fact that fresh blood simply doesn’t flow into the sport the way it used to. Twenty years ago, eight or nine people turned pro each year. Now, only one or two make the jump. Some older putters blame the rise of video games for keeping kids in front of the tube and away from the good clean fun of rolling a little white ball across an expanse of fake grass.
Among die-hards, however, Putt-Putt has always inspired intense devotion. The first national Putt-Putt tournaments in the ’50s were like Trekkie conventions, with players showing up in the standard colors of a Putt-Putt course: green for the carpets and orange for the bump boards. “The fellows would wear orange shirts and green pants,” says Kathryn Clayton. “One guy wore purples and reds. Those colors are fashionable now, but then it was unusual to put those combinations together.”
In the ’60s, Putt-Putt Golf Courses of America Inc. headquarters in Fayetteville—or what the pros simply call “the Home Office”—began requiring players to wear officially sanctioned clothing in an effort to make the sport more professional. Shirts, which cost about $40, can be purchased only from the Home Office. And there’s not much room for Andre Agassi-style interpretation either. According to the Professional Putters Association (PPA) rulebook, “Earrings worn by male players will not be accepted.”
Whereas Putt-Putt players came from every corner of the country to compete in Fayetteville, back home they all lived in the same place—suburbia. In the ’50s and ’60s, Putt-Putts sprang up alongside newly built highways. Standard golf courses were still largely for the wealthy, but a Putt-Putt clubhouse was, in the words of Don Clayton, “the working man’s country club.” A game then cost just 25 cents; today it still costs only about $4. And you don’t have to reserve a tee time.
The success of Putt-Putt marked a renaissance for miniature golf, which, for a brief time 30 years earlier, had qualified as the most popular diversion of a Depression-wracked America. In his book, Miniature Golf—which sports a jacket made of Astroturf—writer John Margolies credits James Barber with building the first mini-golf course, on his estate in Pinehurst, N.C., in 1916. After declaring, “This’ll do,” when he saw the completed course, Barber naturally named his creation, “Thistle Dhu.”
A decade later, Garnet and Frieda Carter created the first mini-golf chain, the Tom Thumb courses, based on Frieda’s own hole designs. The couple built their first course for their guests at the Fairyland Inn, a resort in Tennessee. Soon “pony golf” courses spread to the cities. In Manhattan, miniature links opened on the tops of skyscrapers. Secretaries, mailroom clerks, and executives alike played the mini-links at all hours of the day and night. Across the country, rowdy late-night putting provoked local officials to pass ordinances regulating course hours. Graham Witschief, a New York state Supreme Court justice, took a particular dislike to the midget golf phenomenon. The headline of a New York Times article from Aug. 8, 1930, about one of his decisions read: “Miniature Golf Ruled Not Golf by Court.”
By 1930, there were 25,000 to 50,000 miniature golf courses throughout the country. That year, the Commerce Department estimated that some $125 million had been invested in miniature golf. Pony links had become so profitable that mobsters, including Al Capone, began extracting protection money from course owners. According to a Sept. 1, 1930, New York Times story, Capone’s men routinely shook down course owners for $35 each time they paid a visit. “I’ve Gone Goofy Over Miniature Golf,” became a hit tune. And movie studios, which were losing customers to the new fad, forbade their stars from playing the game in public because of the unprofitable example it set.
But then, just as quickly as the miniature golf fad had exploded, it started to fade. Increasing government regulation and mob meddling all conspired to drive customers away. By late 1931, mini-golf courses were rapidly disappearing.
From the early days of Putt-Putt, Don Clayton tried to make sure that the public respected his game as a serious athletic endeavor. “Our putters are great athletes and great men,” he said. “We have made competition out of a thing that was recreational. I believe it was this type of drive and commerce that made this country great.”
He created the PPA, and to lend the new group legitimacy, he enticed pro standard golfers such as Sam Snead to play exhibition matches. In 1960, long before the modern era of big-money sports television, he started broadcasting tournaments on TV. Today, ESPN airs not one but four Putt-Putt tournaments every summer. Three of the four shows feature matches among the top nine adult Putt-Putt pros. (The other show is a juniors’ tournament.) This year, the three shows will consist of the semifinal and final matches of the PPA National Putting Championships in Fayetteville in August. The top prize for the nationals this year is $50,000, the biggest purse in PPA history.
Gary Hinshaw, a pro-turned-course-manager in Richmond, still remembers the first time he got whupped by a Taylor.
“It was around 1971. I was playing in a tournament as an amateur in High Point, North Carolina. Dave was beating my brains out,” says Hinshaw. It might not have been so embarrassing except for the fact that Hinshaw was 18 and Dave Taylor was only 12—”a little squirt,” says Hinshaw.
But the tiny Taylor wasn’t even the one everyone was talking about that day. Out on the course, word was getting around that there was a pro shooting a stunning 23. “That’s with wooden rails! With wooden rails, you don’t get as consistent a play,” notes Hinshaw. The low-scoring pro, Hinshaw later learned, was the little squirt’s dad, Buddy Taylor.
There have been other mini-golfing families that could boast more than one professional putter. PPA Hall of Famers Dick and Evelyn Florin of Stockbridge, Ga., for example, first met playing on the national tour. Evelyn Florin’s father and brothers also played. And then there were the Connor brothers of Greenville, S.C.—Neil, John, and Charlie.
But no other family has produced as many pros as the Taylors. Besides Buddy, Dave, and Rusty, Audrey Taylor, Buddy’s wife, competed for a time on the short-lived Ladies PPA tour, and Buddy and Audrey’s daughter, Kim, defeated Evelyn Florin to win the ladies’ title in 1982. Buddy’s brother, Bill, played pro for a few years in the late ’60s. So did Audrey’s dad, Sam Wallace, and her two brothers, Richard and Sidney.
“It’s unusual for the whole family to be involved and to stick with it. It’s their whole life,” says Evelyn Florin, who, along with her husband, retired from Putt-Putt in 1985 at age 38. “Most people play through their college years and disappear. They start a family, and you don’t see them any more. We were the dinosaurs on the tour, along with the Taylors.”
Earlier this year, Dave’s wife, Betty Taylor, won tickets for a Caribbean cruise. But the ship will set sail on the last day of the national tournament. Which means it will set sail without the Taylors.
“I guess she understands that I can’t go,” Dave says. “I told her she can go, but she’s not going.” His only consolation is that if he wins in Fayetteville, he will be able to afford to take Betty on another cruise.
“The fact that we’re not going just goes to show how much, just one time, I want to win the national championship,” Dave says. “Or maybe it just shows how stupid I am for turning down a cruise.”
In 1963, Buddy Taylor quit his job as a power-shear operator at the Eastern Stainless Steel mill in East Baltimore to play Putt-Putt full time. He’d already missed a few of his shifts to go to tournaments.
“My bosses told me to come back the following Monday or not to come back at all,” he recalls. “I didn’t go back. I had this crazy idea in my head that I could make a living playing Putt-Putt.”
He bundled Audrey and Dave, then 5, into his 1961 Ford Falcon and hit the road for five weeks. They stopped at tournaments in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Lake Charles, La.
The road was the last place Buddy had figured he’d end up when he was leaving North Carolina eight years earlier. Buddy grew up in High Point, a town of about 50,000, about 75 miles north of Charlotte. His father drove a milk truck, and his mother worked at the local Montgomery Ward as a sales clerk. But in 1955, the whole family moved to Essex, Md., east of Baltimore, in search of better wages. Buddy and his father found jobs on the swing shift at the steel plant. When they weren’t working, Buddy and his brothers played whatever sport was in season: basketball, football, golf.
As a kid in High Point, Buddy had dreamed of becoming a professional golfer, never imagining that he would instead become one of the giants of the small green. He learned how to play golf—the regular kind—starting at age 12, when he worked as a caddy. But he never got good enough to earn a living with a 9-iron, and he couldn’t afford to devote his life to getting better. Not long after landing in Maryland, he had his own family to feed: In March 1957, he married the girl next door, Audrey Wallace. He was 20; she was 17. Dave was born the following year.
One day, shortly after they were married, Buddy took Audrey to the Clifton Park Golf Course in Baltimore.
“The first time my wife went with us to play golf, my father and I had worked all night,” Buddy says. “The shift got off at 8 a.m. We were on the golf course by 10 a.m. The first hole was a long one, a 500-some yard hole. We play the first hole. My wife says, ‘Are we finished?’ We had 17 holes to go.”
Buddy speaks softly, with a pleasing North Carolina drawl. He’s sitting in his living room in Severn, Md., in a blue recliner that seems to have molded itself to his 6-foot-2 frame. Next to him is the cover of a tissue box that holds photos of his grandsons, Rusty at age 6 and Justin at age 4; Dave at age 17; and Kim at age 15. All of them have putted professionally at some point in their lives, except for Justin, who competed as an amateur for several years without turning pro.
In 1960, there was a Putt-Putt near Baltimore in East Point. But Buddy didn’t stumble upon the game until he was back in High Point that year on vacation; he and Audrey hit the local course. What first caught Buddy’s eye was the tournament schedule he spotted posted on the clubhouse wall. And he noticed on the back of the scorecard a list of Putt-Putt courses throughout the country, including the one at East Point. When he got back to Maryland, he made a beeline for the green-and-orange links. At his first amateur tournament, he won 50 free passes and a putter. A few months later, he won his first professional contest.
Buddy considered Putt-Putt just a hobby until the prize money started trickling in. “At a national tournament in Richmond, I won sixth place,” he recalls. “I won $18.75. The money hooked me. That $18.75 felt like $100,” he says. The next year, 1961, he won $212.50 playing Putt-Putt. In 1962, he won another $100.
In 1963, Buddy headed for Cleveland with dreams of winning the top prize, $10,000, at the national tournament dancing in his head. He ended up placing 12th and winning $1,000. That was enough incentive for him to quit his job at the steel mill.
“That was 10 weeks’ work for me. I was making a little over $100 a week in those days,” he says. That was when he and Audrey and Dave climbed into the family car and took off for what Buddy thought could only be a greener future. He played four more tournaments and won $500.
“Then I woke up and said, ‘I can’t make a living playing Putt-Putt.’”
“I see clips [of that time] in my head,” Dave Taylor says about the five weeks he lived on the road with his mom and dad. “I remember riding down a road. The Gulf of Mexico was on the right of us. I think we were heading toward Louisiana.”
Dave is sitting at his dining room table in Pasadena, Md., in a tank top and shorts, taking a drag off a cigarette. He smokes slowly and deliberately. He wears a mustache and keeps the red hair on his head trimmed close to the skin. On his right arm is a tattoo of five playing cards—all aces, with the ace of clubs first and last. “I like to play poker and Putt-Putt,” he explains. “Aces help you in both.”
It’s the first day of the Memorial Day Weekend, one of the few days Dave doesn’t have to be at his job as a service manager for Aramark, a food-service management company, or on the road for hours driving to a Putt-Putt tournament. In the living room, Betty and their 14-year-old daughter, Heather, watch TV.
When the Taylors returned to Maryland, Buddy had given up on his dream of supporting his family with the stroke of a Bullseye putter, but he hadn’t given up Putt-Putt. He got a job managing a course off Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie. Soon, Buddy and Audrey were managing two courses. In 1971, they bought the franchise in Glen Burnie.
Dave and Kim, who came along in 1965, grew up amid the telltale thunk of golf balls bouncing off hollow aluminum rails. There were few other distractions. This, after all, was the era before Putt-Putt courses came with video arcades or laser tag. And there were no fiberglass jungle animals. Buddy kept his course simple and in good condition, moving holes occasionally so his customers wouldn’t get bored.
Buddy never gave his son any formal lessons. “I just watched,” Dave says. But no one could have been better trained to play Putt-Putt. By the time Dave was 9, he was beating 16-year-olds at
When Dave was 15, his parents had to get special permission from the Home Office so he could turn pro and start competing for the big money. (Eighteen is the minimum age for a pro, according to PPA regulations.) Success came quickly: Dave won the first professional tournament he ever played, in Durham, N.C., in 1974. The next month, he won another contest, in Columbus, Ohio. Within a year, he was on the Putt-Putt TV show. “I got spoiled,” he says. “I took it for granted I’d always win.”
A tree stump. For years, on his way to a tournament, Buddy would drive around looking for a tree stump.
“The first time was in the late ’60s, early ’70s maybe, near Youngstown, Ohio,” Buddy says. “We were driving through a park. I can’t remember now if they were telephone poles or tree stumps. I would stop the car, probably because somewhere along the line I had jumped off [a stump] and won. We had four people in a car. We all got out and jumped off it. I guess I was the ringleader of it all. I’m real superstitious.”
In 1978, Buddy became king of the Putt-Putt world, playing with what he considered his lucky golf ball. In the final match at the world championship in Columbus, Buddy faced off against Steve McPherson of Texas: “I remember pretty clearly: We had 36-hole matches. Whoever won the most holes was the champion. I was two or three holes up after the first 18. Coming to the 14th, I was four up. I made my deuce. He had to make an ace for the match to continue. He missed it. The only thing I remember is, my hands went up in the air. A few tears were shed. People came flying out of the stands.”
The big win is immortalized in a fading newspaper clip that Buddy keeps inside a dilapidated brown scrapbook. The caption under his photograph reads: “World Putting Champion Buddy Taylor…Used Same Ball for Last Two Years.” Buddy didn’t use the ball for practice, the article explained, only competition.
“I’m the same way with clothes,” he says. “If I win in a set of clothes, those clothes’ll be making the trip to the next tournament.”
Buddy relied on lucky balls and shirts to give him some peace of mind because he suffered nerves, or what golfers call “the yips.” “The first time I got the yips was in the early ’70s. I was playing in a tournament in Hamilton, Ohio: I get my putter behind the ball and I can’t take the putter back. I can’t move the putter. You know how you look at the ball and look at where you want to hit? Someone counted. I did that 17 times.”
After the 1978 world championship, Buddy
didn’t win another national tournament, except for a rare seniors’ championship in 1984. “My game went downhill from there,” he sighs.
Soon there would be no more clubhouse to open up, either. In 1980, Buddy had to give up the course at Glen Burnie. In a scenario that many a Putt-Putt owner has faced, the land value rose as the suburbs around the course prospered, and he could no longer afford the lease. Buddy returned to the job market, finding work as a manager at a book company. He stayed with the company for 12 years, until it moved to Virginia. “It was the best job I’d ever had—with the exception of Putt-Putt,” he says.
In 1989, the PPA opened its Hall of Fame. By the time Buddy was inducted, in 1996, 36 years after he played his first game, pro putters called the recognition long overdue. His son did the honors at a touching outdoor ceremony in Orlando, Fla., which unfortunately had to be rushed because of the threat of rain. The plaque bears a picture of Buddy from the ’60s, in a buzz cut and horn-rimmed glasses. Next to the picture are listed the highlights of his career. An identical plaque hangs in the Home Office.
“If Buddy Taylor never makes another hole in one, his place in this sport is assured,” says former national putting champion Bill Kirby Jr.
But try telling that to Buddy.
“Brad Lebo [a pro from Shippensburg, Pa.,] is a dentist. Peter Neumann [a pro from Midland, Va.,] has a great job. He’s a scientist!” Buddy exclaims. “We have another player who used to play, Jim Christina. He’s a foot doctor. And they’re just like one of us, you know? I’m nothin’! I play Putt-Putt. I’m a blue-collar worker. And I’m hanging around with dentists and all this. The part that’s kind of embarrassing is that they look up to me.”
Dave wasn’t there in 1978 to see his father win the world championship in Columbus. In fact, the one-time mini-golf child prodigy didn’t play a single tournament that year. He was 20 years old, and he had found a new diversion.
“Trying to meet as many females as possible,” Dave recalls. “Putt-Putt was not part of that equation. I spent a year in Ocean City [Md.] being a bum, doing what I wanted to do because I was young and dumb and didn’t know any better. It seemed like a fun thing to do. I grew up too late. I kinda compare it to going to college, but I didn’t have to go to class. I regret that. I’m speculating now, but if I had continued to play, I could’ve won the nationals. Three chances I let go by because I didn’t play.”
Dave returned to the game in 1981. “I missed it,” he says. “I wanted to play again. I wanted to win again. I remembered what it felt like to win, and I wanted to feel that way again.”
Dave didn’t fritter away all of his time during his hiatus from the game; he did get married. Rusty came along in 1981; a little over a year later, Justin was born. But the marriage didn’t last. After a divorce, he met and married Betty, a friend of his sister Kim’s. Heather was born in 1986.
Back on the greens, Dave steadily accumulated one win after another. He became a three-time Virginia state champion and a four-time Virginia State Player of the Year. His Putt-Putt trophies fill an entire corner of the game room in his basement, next to Heather’s collection of pro-wrestling autographs.
Over the years, Dave has had his share of rivals. For a while, it was Baltimore’s Danny Dore, who started competing in Putt-Putt tournaments at Buddy’s suggestion. “There was a stretch in the ’80s where the years I didn’t win the state championship, he did,” Dave says.
More often these days, when Dave looks over his shoulder, he sees his son. In April, Dave won a Virginia state tournament in Norfolk; Rusty placed second. A few weeks later, at a tournament in Fredericksburg, Dave came in second and Rusty, who finished a stroke behind him, came in third.
Between the two tournaments, Dave took home $348.75—barely enough to cover the cost of food, gas, and lodging. Despite Don Clayton’s vision of Putt-Putt as the sport of Everyman, the cost of competition is more than many people can afford. The entry fee for most tournaments is $40, but pros fork over twice that amount because there are usually two consecutive tournaments in one weekend on the same course. “Without getting money back, I don’t know how long I’d play,” Dave says. “We don’t expect to win any money. We don’t expect to lose any, either. Let me break even forever and I’ll be fine.”
There is also a less official way to win—or lose—money on Putt-Putt: gambling. To be sure, wagering is strictly against PPA rules. But many putters bet among themselves during their practice games. A player can lose as much as $200 a night on money games.
Not surprisingly, pros are loath to talk about Putt-Putt’s dark secret, for fear that the Home Office will revoke their PPA memberships, for which they pay dearly. PPA professional dues range from $100, for those who just want to play at the state level, to $1,175, for those who also want to compete in the national championship in August. This year, there are 130 pros, only about a dozen of whom will garner more than $3,000 in Putt-Putt winnings. A lucky handful will make more than $10,000.
“Putt-Putt is an expensive hobby,” Dave says. “Sometimes we can’t afford to do it and we do it anyway. We’ve surrendered to the idea that we’re going away and there’s a Putt-Putt there. Unfortunately, I won more when I was going to a Putt-Putt tournament and it was a little getaway. I thought that I got to go to a lot of places I never would have gone to.”
“I want to go back to Ypsilanti,” Heather pipes up from the couch, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Have you seen Rusty?”
Audrey Taylor is on the phone. She’s made five frantic phone calls in the past 30 minutes. It’s about 6 p.m. on a sunny Thursday in May. Her grandson is a half-hour late for his interview.
As Audrey sits down in rocking chair in front of the TV, she looks apologetic. She doesn’t have much to say about her own pro putting career. “I was never any good,” she says. “Putt-Putt takes time and patience. That’s the thing about Rusty. He wants to be great right now. He’s not satisfied. They don’t turn pro as young as he. He’s very young yet. I’ve seen some players play and have a so-so year and quit. I’d rather he get his success slowly.”
Audrey falls silent for a few seconds before grabbing the phone again.
“Oh, where is he?”
Twenty minutes later, Rusty finally bursts into the living room, his hands raised in supplication. “I’m really sorry,” he says.
He got held up at work, he explains, as he takes a seat in the kitchen, just off the living room. He has been working since he graduated from Old Mill Senior High School a year ago. First, he drove a truck selling coffee for Aramark; he recently switched to building office furniture. Work this weekend will keep him away from a tournament in High Point.
“I didn’t really take Putt-Putt very seriously until I was 13,” he says, leaning his chair back on two legs. He’s a normal-looking kid, on the skinny side, with striking hazel eyes. On his right arm he sports a tattoo, a scroll with the letter R on it. When he’s not at work or playing Putt-Putt, he hangs in his room with his friends, blasting Eminem and the Wu-Tang Clan. The only time he doesn’t sound his age is when he talks about Putt-Putt. Then he’s incredibly self-possessed.
Well, sort of. As he speaks, Rusty absent-mindedly begins pulling up the hem of his T-shirt over his folded arms, causing the shirt to rise and exposing his belly button. “The first year [after I turned pro] was very hard, mentally hard,” he says. “It was hard for me to relate to playing as a pro. It takes a toll on your mind. This year is totally different. The skill level is different. Everything just falls into place.”
So far, Rusty’s friends haven’t given him much flak about his mini-golf avocation. But not too many of them have the patience to watch regular golf on the tube with him, so he watches alone. His friends have talked about going to see him in action, but none of them have made it yet.
At tournaments, you can usually find Rusty with Bason, Lebo, and Mike Brown. Before and after a tournament, the foursome will spend hours “grinding a hole,” lewd-sounding Putt-Putt jargon for practicing a shot over and over again. In Putt-Putt, winning isn’t about coming up with your own special style of play. Most pros approach the holes the same way.
“There are no secrets in Putt-Putt,” Rusty explains. Winning is all about consistency. For Rusty, it’s also about composure. Which he kind of lacks.
There hasn’t been as expressive a pro as Rusty since Vance Randall, the greatest pro putter of the ’60s. Randall’s tendency to give a little shout when he aced a hole, or grimace when he missed, didn’t always endear him to his competitors, who found his antics distracting. Dave and Buddy, both quiet players, have stayed on Rusty to keep his cool—so much so that the teenager cites “my attitude” with rolled-back eyes when explaining how he bent his last putter.
“I’m not the nicest guy to play with. I have a bad attitude, I guess. I need to fix it,” says Rusty. “When I’m playing good, I hardly have emotion. I get very discouraged when I’m playing bad.”
Yet Rusty’s intensity is not without its fans. “If you were in the stands, would you go to see a baseball pitcher throw balls and strike everybody out, or see a hitter hit a double, triple, or a home run?” asks Randall. “You want to see the hitter! You want action. You don’t want boredom!”
Randall, 60, is back on the circuit for the first time in 19 years. He couldn’t pass up the chance to try for the $50,000 purse in Fayetteville.
“When Arnold Palmer hit a miraculous shot, he expressed himself. That’s one reason why he was a great golfer,” Randall says. “Jack Nicklaus? Everybody hated him. Why? He was so methodical. Everything had to be just right. The way he played the game, not expressive at all. Take Tiger Woods. The expression, the fist up in the air when he makes a birdie? You can see the expression when he misses a putt, like it kills him. Some can hold it inside; some can’t. Rusty won’t ever be able to. He’s that way. I think it’s great—especially
Rusty’s not quite ready for a close-up, but he’s getting there. “I don’t think I’ll win as much as my grandfather did,” he says, unconcerned that his navel is showing. “Put it this way: My grandfather was the best in his time. My father was one of the best in his time. When my time comes, I will be, too.”
In Charlottesville, the 18-hole playoff between Rusty and Anderson is about to begin. Dave coulda been a contender. Going into the fourth round, he was tied with Rusty for the lead. But then he fell hopelessly behind.
“I lost,” Dave is lamenting. He’s looking at third place. He’s dejected, because the same thing happened the day before. If Rusty wins today, it will be the first time he’s defeated his dad in a championship.
“It’s age. What else could it be?” Dave muses. “To me, it’s strange. We’re not playing a physical thing. When I was Rusty’s age, I was better. Though it might not show physically, it shows in my mind. I have doubts, and that’s a bad thing.”
The tournament’s not over yet, but Dave is already dreading the three-hour drive ahead of him. Tomorrow is Monday, and he has to be up at 5 a.m. “My least favorite part is driving home, because I have to go to work and this—” he stops, pointing in the direction of the course with his cigarette, “this is done, you know?”
Out on the 12th hole, with the playoff well under way, Anderson is up by one stroke. A small group of putters, including Bason, Neumann, and Dore, has gathered to watch. Dave has staked out a spot by the giant fiberglass elephant that stands in the middle of the course.
Milling about in a decidedly nonregulation gray T-shirt and shorts is Brown, one of Rusty’s practice partners. Brown’s not competing today. That’s because a few days earlier, Bobby Owens, the president of Putt-Putt Golf Courses of America Inc., summarily revoked Brown’s PPA membership after spotting Brown’s name while leafing through a new magazine called Maximum Golf.
In the article, the author, Joe Bob Briggs, describes having taken Brown and another pro, Dave McCaslin of Indialantic, Florida, to a strip bar, where they drank and talked about prostitutes. Apparently, putters in topless bars are not part of the family-friendly image the PPA wants to project. As for Brown, he’s too afraid to talk about the scandal on the record.
Meanwhile, at the 12th hole, Anderson leans down to putt. A car ignition starts up. He stops, turns toward the offending auto, and glares until it drives off. Then he proceeds to botch the ace.
Anderson has barely finished his second stroke when Rusty starts brushing the mat. He putts, sending the ball off the right rail and past the hole. He makes his deuce shot, picks up the ball, and tosses it angrily into the grass.
Anderson is still up by one as they approach the 16th hole.
“This is the biggest putt of my life,” Rusty says, amending his earlier declaration at the same hole.
He putts. “Find it, baby!” he yells. The ball rolls into the cup, tying up the score.
The tie holds as Anderson shoots a 2. There’s no breakthrough at the 17th hole, either. On the wicked 18th, Rusty hits a deuce. He watches as Anderson steps up. But it’s soon obvious that Anderson won’t be able to repeat the ace that landed him in the playoff to begin with. As the ball rolls to a stop an inch from the cup, the gallery of putters lets out a collective “Oooh.”
It’s time for sudden death. Whoever wins a hole first wins it all.
Rusty begins the sudden-death round at the first hole, a straight shot. He aced it the last round. He gently brushes the tee mat with his fingers, positions his ball, and putts.
“Go, ball,” Dave murmurs.
As the ball rolls neatly into the cup, Rusty shoots one arm in the air and smiles back at the crowd.
All eyes turn toward Anderson. He putts, sending the ball down the fairway and—”oooh”—around the hole. It stops halfway between the back rail and the cup. The big man crumples. His putter falls to the ground.
That’s the first word you see on the Lucite triangle that course owner Lloyd Wood hands to Rusty.
The rest of the inscription reads:
Virginia Professional Putters Association
Dogwood Festival Open
Charlottesville, Va. May 21, 2000
Rusty clutches the trophy as he and his grandfather head for the parking lot, across the way from a storage place whose address is 1525 Putt-Putt Lane. His wallet is slightly fatter, thanks to the $300 tourney purse.
Buddy is bemoaning his 13th-place finish: “I’m the only one who flunked out today.”
Dave goes over to Wood and shakes his hand. “Thanks for having us,” he says. “See you next year.” CP