Mouse The Roared that

Don’t be mis­lead by the diminu­tive in its name: com­pet­i­tive minigolf is a Big Deal. Steve Kil­gal­lon meets the pi­o­neer­ing Ki­wis aim­ing to bring the lit­tle game to a wider au­di­ence.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - COVER STORY -

Oli Hicks al­ways dreamed of rep­re­sent­ing New Zealand. Any sport, didn’t mat­ter. He watched Michael Jones and Chris­tian Cullen, Stacey

Jones and Michael Camp­bell. He had played a de­cent stan­dard of cricket and rugby as a kid. But now he was 28 years old, not in great shape, work­ing a busy job, and liv­ing in Am­s­ter­dam, far from the na­tional se­lec­to­rial eye.

Then he saw a doc­u­men­tary in which Phil Keoghan, the New Zealan­der who hosts the tele­vi­sion show The Amaz­ing Race, some­how de­cided to hit a golf ball across Scot­land while wear­ing a kilt. And slowly, he came up with an idea. Oli Hicks would wear a black blazer with a sil­ver fern. He would carry a New Zealand flag at an open­ing cer­e­mony. And per­form a haka at a clos­ing cer­e­mony. He would get a world rank­ing.

Oli Hicks would play minigolf for New Zealand.

Wind­mills and clowns. Di­nosaurs and plas­ter dwarves. Ice­creams. Beach towns. Kids hav­ing melt­downs when they miss a shot.

We have a shared col­lec­tive mem­ory of what minigolf means and it’s not course notes and coaches, world cham­pi­onships and anti-dop­ing poli­cies.

And yet com­pet­i­tive minigolf isn’t new and it isn’t that ob­scure. It’s big in Europe and it’s had a world cham­pi­onship for 27 years. We were just late to the party when Oli Hicks found him­self in a small lake­side city in south­ern Fin­land in 2015, learn­ing that ev­ery­thing he thought he knew about minigolf was com­pletely wrong.

The sport di­rec­tor for the World Minigolf Fed­er­a­tion, Pasi Aho, es­ti­mates there are 20,000 com­pet­i­tive play­ers world­wide. In the 1960s and 70s, the sport was mainly con­cen­trated in Ger­many, Swe­den, Aus­tria, and Switzer­land, but by the late 80s it had spread across most of main­land Europe. Aho him­self – who would reach a world rank­ing in the 30s – took it up as a teenager in Fin­land, play­ing on a course next to his lo­cal ice rink. The Fed­er­a­tion is earnestly pur­su­ing In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee recog­ni­tion as a real sport, but they are still vol­un­teers and the world’s best play­ers are still play­ing for €500 (NZ$880) pay­outs. And, as he says, “there are so many new things young­sters can do, it is hard to get them to play minigolf com­pet­i­tively”.

But in New Zealand? Never been a thing. Un­til about three years ago.

For Oli Hicks, watch­ing the Keoghan doc­u­men­tary some­how be­gat the idea of run­ning the length of Hol­land – 10 marathons in 10 days – dressed in a full­body Ly­cra suit. And this some­how be­gat the idea of form­ing a New Zealand minigolf team.

He dis­cov­ered that the rights to form a New Zealand minigolf fed­er­a­tion sat, dor­mant, with New Zealand Golf. He got as far as get­ting their bless­ing to form an or­gan­i­sa­tion and ex­chang­ing pa­per­work with Fed­er­a­tion boss Dr Ger­hard Zim­mer­man.

Then four years passed, and Hicks found him­self chat­ting to a cou­ple of Ki­wis – Chris Ser­vice and Henry Stock – in an Am­s­ter­dam bar. His first sug­ges­tion was that they form a New Zealand minigolf team and go to the world cham­pi­onships. “The sec­ond thing I said was, ‘Do you want to be my friends? We’re all Ki­wis liv­ing in Am­s­ter­dam.’ I kinda did things the other way around.”

Hicks got some blaz­ers made. He came up with a logo that he’s rather proud of – a peck­ing Kiwi, its pro­boscis mor­ph­ing into a put­ter. And he en­tered a full team (six men, three women) in the 2015 World Minigolf Cham­pi­onship in Lahti, Fin­land.

The New Zealan­ders were wel­comed with en­thu­si­asm. “How shall I de­scribe it?” says Aho, who was tour­na­ment di­rec­tor. “It was a great thing for ev­ery­one who was there to see a New Zealand team com­ing.”

For the Ki­wis, it was a piss-up, wasn’t it? “Cor­rect,” says Hicks. Yes, agrees Aho care­fully, “it was for them se­ri­ously a big shock. They prob­a­bly knew it was go­ing to be dif­fer­ent, but I don’t know what ex­actly what they would have ex­pected.”

Hicks bore the New Zealand flag in a pa­rade through the city be­fore it all be­gan. His team brought half a dozen spec­ta­tors, which was un­usual, who drank and cheered, which was also un­usual, set against com­pet­i­tive minigolf’s fune­real si­lence. “We were ba­si­cally the Cool Runnings of the event,” he says.

“Ev­ery­one loved us,” says Lucy Giesen, who also signed on to the team when she ran into Hicks in a bar. “No mat­ter what, we had a smile on our face.”

The New Zealan­ders turned up two days be­fore the start, bring­ing reg­u­lar golf put­ters, and no golf balls – as­sum­ing they’d just be given a ball at the start.

First les­son: most se­ri­ous minigolfers have their own car­ry­bag full of balls of dif­fer­ent sizes, weights and com­po­si­tion, of­ten us­ing a dif­fer­ent one on ev­ery hole. Sec­ond: be­cause some of those balls more closely re­sem­ble heavy­weight squash balls than tra­di­tional golf balls, they use spe­cial­ist rub­ber-faced put­ters. Third: they turn up a week early to thor­oughly learn the course, prac­tis­ing eight hours a day and writ­ing up course notes that plan their tee-off po­si­tions and what line they aim to hit the ball on.

Also, while we’re on the tech­ni­cal stuff, there’s four types of minigolf sur­faces. Three of them are played on in Europe – they look like tiny putting greens and don’t have ob­sta­cles and dec­o­ra­tions. We have the fourth

Wind­mills and clowns.

va­ri­ety, which uses ar­ti­fi­cial turf and as many wind­mills as you like. Imag­ine only ever play­ing hard­court ten­nis, then turn­ing up at Wim­ble­don and re­al­is­ing it was played on grass.

The New Zealan­ders were loaned some clubs. Dan­ish player Vin­cent Huus vol­un­teered to coach them, and got his na­tional team­mates to do­nate a bag of balls.

“It was a roar­ing suc­cess: we made the top 10,” says Hicks.

We should note here that there were 10 com­pet­ing na­tions. New Zealand were last in the men’s and women’s team event; they oc­cu­pied the bot­tom three places in the in­di­vid­ual women’s event; and all the men were like­wise placed in the last 10 rank­ing spots.

Di­nosaurs and plas­ter dwarves. Ice­creams. Beach towns. We share a col­lec­tive mem­ory of minigolf.

Hicks also con­sid­ers the event a per­sonal tri­umph. He hit a dozen or so hole-in-ones, and he came home with a tro­phy. He’s got it with him now: a small plas­tic cup, one arm bro­ken (he dropped it in the car park on the way in to be in­ter­viewed). It’s the 2015 New Zealand Minigolf Cham­pion Tro­phy. That’s odd, be­cause there was no com­pet­i­tive minigolf in New Zealand back then, and how much the worse a place we were for that.

Ah. Turns out, with nine Ki­wis in Fin­land, they de­cided to ag­gre­gate their daily scores and the best- per­formed over the four days would be crowned the first New Zealand cham­pion. Af­ter the third day, Hicks was run­ning sec­ond to Andrew McCarthy. Only McCarthy hadn’t re­alised the tour­na­ment was a four­day event, and had to fly home to Switzer­land for work. Hicks grins: “I played to the fi­nal whis­tle.”

The big­gest les­son for the Ki­wis, ob­serv­ing their ri­val teams with their of­fi­cial coaches, note­books full of plans of how to play each hole and those bulging bags of balls was that minigolf was con­sid­ered wor­thy of se­ri­ous study in Europe. Says Giesen: “We said, ‘Why can’t we do this in New Zealand?’”

So far, so ironic. Now en­ter Bobby Hart.

A sports-ob­sessed for­mer plas­terer, Hart was first to or­gan­ise fut­sal, a small-sided ver­sion of foot­ball, to his na­tive west Auck­land. But he wasn’t the first to do it in New Zealand and he dearly wanted to be a trail­blazer. “A lot of sports you get in­volved in now, you’re not in­volved from the start, you’re fol­low­ing the guide­lines and the rules,” he ex­plains. “You’re not shap­ing it, mould­ing it… we can sit back at 70, and say look at minigolf now; we were the pi­o­neers.”

Twelve months af­ter their Fin­nish es­capade, New Zealand minigolf’s key fig­ures were still en­joy­ing their OEs. So it was an­other ex­pat team set to at­tend the World Ad­ven­ture Golf Cham­pi­onships in Pr­ishtina, Kosovo. Only now they had a Face­book page and a web­site. And Bobby Hart had seen the web­site. And he thought: “No f…ing way, some­one beat me to it.”

Still, he got in touch, said he had ex­pe­ri­ence of build­ing a sport, wanted to help. Four months later he was on his way to Kosovo to meet Hicks, Giesen and some of their Lon­don mates.

This time, Hicks had them prac­tice a haka. And their own com­mu­nal cel­e­bra­tion for a hole in one, a stac­cato shout of “yeah boy”. It’s de­bat­able, then, whether they were any bet­ter pre­pared than the previous out­ing.

Fu­ture Mini Black Matt Ans­ley, who didn’t go on that trip, has heard how it played out. “The guys from the UK were there for a party trip re­ally… they had turned up for a laugh. Whereas Bobby was straight down the line. Still is.”

Hicks, more diplo­matic, says: “Bobby was quite thor­ough and quite se­ri­ous in his ap­proach, and we picked up that he meant busi­ness. This was his pas­sion, and he had come to do a job. We picked up on that, and we re­alised we were also there to do a job for our coun­try.”

What is ap­par­ent is that Hart worked hard, very hard, and soaked up ev­ery tip and trick he could from the other na­tions. “The com­mu­nity is so good, they will show you ev­ery­thing, and say then we will beat you,” he says. “They don’t want to hide any­thing.” At the end of the tour­na­ment, he was New Zealand’s high­est ranked player in the world, at 274, a fact that ap­pears promi­nently on his LinkedIn bi­og­ra­phy.

By now, Hicks and Giesen were com­ing home. So they de­vised the in­au­gu­ral New Zealand Minigolf Open.

Their com­bined mar­ket­ing nous at­tracted three tele­vi­sion crews, some Chiefs rugby play­ers, and 46 en­trants. An Aus­tralian, Al­lan Cox, who had been play­ing for 20 years, flew over to play and said it was the big­gest turnout he’d ever seen at an event.

And there was a grand­stand fin­ish. “It was like Happy Gil­more [a golf movie which ends with a dra­matic fi­nale],” says Hicks, fondly. “We had a play-off for the men’s sin­gles. Three TV crews on the 18th hole, about 60 peo­ple watch­ing. It was un­be­liev­able. The at­mos­phere was so tense.”

These were heady days. They ran a com­pe­ti­tion where the prize was a minigolf date with Bach­e­lor Art Green (who just hap­pens to be Giesen’s cousin) and his cho­sen date Matilda Rice at glam­orous Sylvia Park minigolf.

Hicks’ part in the story ends a few months later. Work was busy. His wife was no fan of minigolf. She’d been to Kosovo with him. “She knows the life of a WAG. Found it quite bor­ing at times, eight hours a day at a mini-golf course in the swel­ter­ing heat. She was happy for me to pass the reins on.” Giesen too was mov­ing on, to a new job in Syd­ney, where she set about get­ting an Aus­tralian fed­er­a­tion formed. She’s still the Ocea­nia rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the World Minigolf Fed­er­a­tion, a po­si­tion she says her friends find end­lessly hi­lar­i­ous.

But among those to turn up at those first na­tion­als (won, as a foot­note, by Jac­ques van Zyl) were John and Fay Ans­ley and their son, Matt.

They’d played as a fam­ily when Matt was a kid. “It’s not some­thing you want to do as you get older – but then when I heard there was a com­pe­ti­tion, I was straight in, it changed my mind­set com­pletely,” says Matt. Ans­ley Jr knew about be­ing com­pet­i­tive: his main hobby was com­pet­ing in ob­sta­cle course rac­ing, in­clud­ing the World’s Tough­est Mud­der, where com­peti­tors run con­tin­u­ous laps of an 8km course in the Ne­vada desert for 24 hours.

He brought the same de­ter­mi­na­tion to his minigolf – cre­at­ing a ri­valry that now dom­i­nates the do­mes­tic scene.

The best play­ers in the coun­try prac­tice. A lot. Most Fri­days, the Ans­leys make up a three-ball at the Lil­liputt course on Auck­land’s Ta­maki Dr, gen­tly sledg­ing each other as they take two or three laps around the an­i­ma­tronic di­nosaurs. “We don’t talk much when we’re play­ing,” says John, the reign­ing cham­pion. “When Matt’s go­ing bad I know, and he knows.”

Bobby Hart, mean­while, plays mainly at the En­chanted Gar­den course in One­hunga. “It’s a good lit­tle course. This is where I trained for months on my own be­fore Kosovo. Six hours a day, four days a week.” He holds the course record. Twice. 33 is the of­fi­cial best, 30 his un­of­fi­cial mark – he was so ex­cited, he left with­out get­ting his card signed.

Hart is hit­ting solo – his only com­pany is the course owner, Dar­ryl Prout – un­til his mate Matt Maguire turns up. Maguire trails a few holes be­hind, oc­ca­sion­ally whoop­ing out loud. He judges his open­ing round a blinder, and treats him­self a cel­e­bra­tory Rocky Road.

It’s an il­lus­tra­tion of why they bother: the mix of school­boy maths, nerve and rep­e­ti­tion that de­liv­ers the per­fect way to play a hole takes prac­tice. In Maguire’s case, he’s fi­nally aced the third hole for the first time. “I’ve been think­ing about this hole, I hate to say it, when I am ly­ing in bed, should be sleep­ing.”

He’s not stay­ing as long as Hart; he has to take his 10-year-old son Ryan – the youngest player on the do­mes­tic cir­cuit – to foot­ball prac­tice. “There is life out­side minigolf,” he says.

The per­spex win­dow of the course of­fice flies open, and Prout’s head emerges. “Where?” he bel­lows.

Hart stud­ies minigolf. It’s led him to re­ject the stan­dard way to putt. In­stead, he drops his hips back­wards, squats, then cra­dles his club gen­tly in his hands, at an an­gle al­most like an ice hockey goal­tender. He says it low­ers his cen­tre of grav­ity and turns his put­ter into a pen­du­lum.

He im­plies this might be one of the many lessons he learned from the Euro­peans. Hmmm, says Aho. “It’s rather un­con­ven­tional. I am not say­ing it is not work­ing, ev­ery­one has so many dif­fer­ent ways... hardly any one of the top play­ers is us­ing this play­ing tech­nique. I would say Bobby’s tech­nique is a very un­usual one.”

Bobby Hart has a spe­cial­ist rub­ber-faced put­ter. Matt Ans­ley has a $40 put­ter from Rebel Sport.

Hart has his own carry bag of balls, a rain­bow of dif­fer­ent sizes and weights. Ans­ley tends to use what­ever ball he gets given at the course kiosk. This he does de­lib­er­ately, he ad­mits, be­cause he knows it will an­noy Hart if he beats him with any old ball.

Hart talks about set­ting up clubs at ev­ery course. About try­ing to per­suade peo­ple to build com­pe­ti­tion­qual­ity Euro­pean-style cour­ses. Start­ing a ju­nior pro­gramme. Maybe get­ting on TV. “I’m go­ing to send a mes­sage to [rich lis­ter] Craig Heat­ley, and I want to talk to [bil­lion­aire] Graeme Hart. You’ve got to go where the money is, and they are both golfers.” He hopes he’s got

Oli Hicks: proud holder of the 2015 New Zealand Minigolf Cham­pion Tro­phy. a foot in the door with Graeme Hart – he did some of the plas­ter­ing on his home ren­o­va­tions.

He sold spon­sor­ships all over the Kiwi team shirt – to his garage, to his own minigolf busi­ness, which im­ports spe­cial­ist clubs and balls, an­tic­i­pat­ing a minigolf revo­lu­tion: “You want to be the orig­i­nal guy”.

“Off the record,” says one per­son we talk to. “Bobby is a crazy guy. He’s a nut­ter.”

Right now, Bobby Hart is un­der pres­sure.

The New Zealand do­mes­tic sea­son is a long one.

Stretch­ing through­out the year, it loops around the North Is­land, one tour­na­ment a month. Last year, Matt Ans­ley won most events, but fa­ther John won the se­ries through his con­sis­tency. Hart was third.

There’s about 15 reg­u­lars. The big car­rot is the top four get first re­fusal on a spot (self-funded) in the world cham­pi­onships team; next year, it’s in China, where play­ers are be­ing promised free three-star ac­com­mo­da­tion at a brand-new re­sort course near Shang­hai.

They’ve been grad­u­ally im­prov­ing on the world stage. In 2017, they weren’t last; Lucy Giesen had also brought along a novice Aus­tralian team, so they were. And Kiwi Cam Couper did enough to catch the eye of Aho, who rated him po­ten­tially world-class. “They’ve taken some big steps in a short time,” says Aho. “The road is still long, but they’ve taken the right ap­proach.”

In 2018, the Ans­leys joined Couper and Hart in the Czech Repub­lic. Like those who had gone be­fore, Matt Ans­ley was duly stunned by the steely fo­cus of his op­po­nents; he com­pleted his anti-dop­ing dec­la­ra­tion; watched a Swede hold a towel over a team­mate’s spe­cial glass ball so it didn’t burn the turf, heard sto­ries of the Ger­mans ly­ing down be­side a hole to form a hu­man wind­break. “We could climb the lad­der quite quickly once we get a few more peo­ple up to speed,”

“You say ‘com­pet­i­tive minigolf ’ and peo­ple laugh in your face. And we com­pletely un­der­stand that.”

says Couper. He says the Brits have been go­ing eight years, and they’re al­ready on par.

Hart re­ally, re­ally wants to go back again. But he coaches a soc­cer team and fix­ture clashes kept him out of the first two tour­na­ments of the sea­son. For the third, in Hamil­ton, he went down a day early and prac­tised eight hours solid. He won. It put him back into con­tention, but still a fair way be­hind. The next event will be cru­cial.

When we next re­turn to the Secret Gar­den, it’s an un­sea­son­ally sunny win­ter’s Satur­day and it’s noisy and busy. I’m taken aback. It seems as if round six of the ChroMax NZ Minigolf Pro Open Cham­pi­onship has drawn an un­usu­ally big turnout.

Ac­tu­ally there’s only 12 en­trants. Ev­ery­one else is smil­ing, laugh­ing fam­i­lies en­joy­ing an af­ter­noon out un­aware of the poker-faced na­tional event play­ing out next to them.

A minigolf course can be lu­cra­tive busi­ness. It cre­ates a unique ten­sion – while a golf course owner is likely to have some love of golf, a minigolf owner is more likely to be an as­tute busi­ness­man with the $400,000 spare to build one. Prout, how­ever, runs the En­chanted Gar­den be­cause it doesn’t feel like a real job and he likes mak­ing peo­ple happy. He never ex­pected any­one tak­ing it se­ri­ously. “I get thou­sands through here and only 1 per cent are slightly se­ri­ous about it,” he says. Could it take off as a sport? “Hmmm,” he says. “I think it will al­ways be a niche. I think so.”

Why so few there? “It’s a nice day, so...” says Matt Ans­ley, with a shrug and a look to the skies. Even Couper, the cur­rent pres­i­dent of NZ Minigolf, isn’t here: he’s sell­ing his car to­day and the bloke buy­ing it could only turn up at 12 (a week or so later he will re­sign the pres­i­dency, cit­ing lack of time).

But Hart is here, wear­ing his trea­sured Ghana Minigolf polo shirt (a swap he se­cured amid many com­pet­ing of­fers at the last world champs), Barcelona FC foot­ball shirt, knee-length striped red, yel­low and green socks and asym­met­ric pink and yel­low train­ers.

It’s an ideal chance for him to climb the leader­board, es­pe­cially as Matt Ans­ley is crook – he’s play­ing, but has with­drawn from to­mor­row’s North Shore Marathon and is speak­ing in a croak.

Hart’s tense, but he’s also en­cour­ag­ing the other play­ers. On the 10th hole, over­seen by an or­ange plas­ter dragon, Ans­ley’s ball rolls around the hole, back out, and then down into a dip. Hart ex­plains this un­for­tu­nate event to Matt Maguire. “Did he cry?” asks Maguire. “I would’ve,” says Hart.

But ac­tu­ally to­day Ans­ley is hav­ing all the luck, and Hart none of it. “You can tell when Bobby is go­ing well, be­cause he goes all quiet,” Ans­ley con­fides. Hart is not be­ing quiet. You can hear him three holes away. But it’s se­ri­ous, quiet Mur­ray Cramp who takes the first round lead. Ans­ley con­grat­u­lates him. “It’s a long way to go,” he says, “but thanks.” They break to record their scores and fuel up: the Ans­leys have a chilly­bin full of home­made sand­wiches; Maguire has two litres of or­ange fizz and Domino’s. Round two starts badly for Hart. “It’s all over, but that’s al­right,” he says philo­soph­i­cally. Mur­ray stays in front. “Ev­ery shot counts. The fo­cus you need is in­cred­i­ble,” Hart says. “I’m try­ing to re­ally get in the zone. I know what it’s like now. It’s flip­ping dif­fi­cult.”

It’s get­ting colder now. Hart puts on his New Zealand minigolf rep’s jacket for round three. I si­dle off home. As Oli Hicks’ wife would at­test, there’s only so much minigolf you can watch. Af­ter­wards, I hear that Mur­ray held his nerve, his place in the zone and the lead to win by two strokes from Matt Ans­ley; his first-ever tour­na­ment win. And Bobby Hart com­busted, throw­ing his club and some F-bombs.

The next day, he posts a solemn state­ment on the Fed­er­a­tion face­book page, re­sign­ing from the tour to pur­sue the lu­cra­tive World Mas­ters of Putting se­ries in Las Ve­gas: “Look, a Kiwi can fly.” Then he turns up any­way to the next event, and ap­par­ently tells Mur­ray he’s go­ing to wrap his put­ter around his head. He gets a warn­ing let­ter from the Fed­er­a­tion.

Are they the pi­o­neers? In 50 years’ time, will the names Hicks, Giesen, Hart and Ans­ley be in a Hall of Fame, the revered le­gends who brought minigolf to the masses?

Or is it a niche oc­cu­pied by those with skins thick enough to laugh off the mock­ery?

“You say ‘com­pet­i­tive minigolf’ and peo­ple laugh in your face. And we com­pletely un­der­stand that,” says Matt Ans­ley. “Who would em­bar­rass them­selves enough to do that?”

“It’s a slow build,” says Giesen. “It’s chang­ing peo­ple’s per­spec­tive that minigolf is just for kids, and that’s some­thing that will take time.”

What they all agree on is that minigolf, done prop­erly, is a se­ri­ous pur­suit. You need to be able to read the slope, cal­cu­late an­gles and re­bounds, keep a cool head, stay fo­cused. But it’s also en­tirely demo­cratic when it comes to age, sex and size.

“It’s ac­tu­ally bloody hard to play four rounds of minigolf in one day,” de­clares Hicks. “It’s men­tally hard, it is phys­i­cally hard.”

But he’s got a sales pitch for any­one tempted. “You can po­ten­tially be New Zealand minigolf cham­pion like me, be in the world top 500 like me, be pres­i­dent – like me.”

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