Ben Hogan, whose miseries on the greens pushed him into virtual retirement, has long claimed that golf and putting are two different games. Last week in a parking lot in suburban Cleveland a group of athletes who couldn't agree with him more competed for $50,000 in the National Putting Championship. Some of them had not hit a golf ball farther than 40 feet in their lives, but when it came to the delicate maneuvers of the game long and ingloriously known as miniature golf, they were practiced masters.
The field was largely made up of members of the Professional Putters Association, a subsidiary of an organization that has franchised 330 Putt-Putt courses throughout the U.S. The PPA runs a professional tour for putters. This year it has scheduled five tournaments, with the event last weekend at the Great Northern Shopping Center in North Olmstead, Ohio as its answer to giant golf's U.S. Open.
The PPA's Great Northern course shimmered in the heat between a Sears store and a hot-dog stand as 231 putters assembled from 31 states to try to win the $10,000 first prize. Deadly serious about the whole thing—and for that kind of money, why not?—many of the contestants arrived days early to practice on the 36-hole layout, which measures 360 brisk strides, not counting water barriers, bump boards, built-in mounds and a wrought-iron Putt-Putt sign. Each hole was about 30 feet, and its par was 2. "I've memorized every blade of grass," said one tense putter after much practice. He meant he had memorized every fiber of the carpet, the surface of all Putt-Putt course greens being synthetic material stretched over undulating concrete.
The professional putters came in all shapes and ages—oldest, 61; roundest, 4 feet. They were college students, postal carriers, mechanics, salesmen and a termite exterminator. There was also the PPA's big name, Neil Connor, a wispy 21-year-old from Greenville, S.C. who wears a straw hat, has a stroke as smooth as a cobra's weave and who has won $16,500 with his putting. He is dangerously close to being a putting superstar—there is a PPA putter that bears his endorsement. As one contestant at Great Northern put it: "Arnold Palmer is my idol, but Neil Connor is my idol here."
Connor's financial success helped the putting tour grow. "At first I thought it was a fad," said Vernon Taylor of High Point, N.C., who left his job in a furniture company to go into putting. "But it's not. We're not crazy. We're blazing a trail."
The trailblazer of them all proved to be John Spotts, a thin, freckled, 20-year-old student at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. Plunking in an ace on the next to last hole, he won the 1963 National Putting Championship by a single stroke. He sank a phenomenal 38 holes in one in his final 72 holes, while posting only two bogeys and one double bogey. He came from so far out of contention that his competition did not see Spotts before its eyes until the very end. And even Palmer, a pretty good putter himself (see page 28), may shudder to learn that Spotts had to be 86 under par in his 216 holes to earn the $10,000 first prize.