You learn a lot when you attend the largest putting contest the world has ever seen. For instance, you’ll learn there are two main pro putting tours in the United States, the Pro Putters Association and the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association. You might also learn that putting’s popularity in America pales to that in Europe. And it turns out really serious putters abroad are more picky about their equipment -- rubber-headed clubs that impart spin and different golf balls for each hole -- than PGA Tour pros.
You also start to think that the best way to grow golf might be to focus on the game’s most accessible aspect. And that the inaugural Major Series of Putting, a 10-day event that sprouted from a parking lot in the shadows of the Las Vegas Strip, could have a profound effect on golf participation rates in this country -- provided putting is classified as golf.
“We’ve got to change the metrics on what we count as golf,” says Brad Faxon, an eight-time PGA Tour winner and Major Series of Putting ambassador. “Just using rounds played is an archaic way of doing it. If you putt or go out and hit range balls for an hour, that counts as being a participant in golf.”
Archaic is the last word that comes to mind when evaluating the Major Series of Putting, which was created with the backing of Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte. There’s an unfiltered host who constantly calls the action much like at famed NYC basketball mecca Rucker Park. That’s if you can hear him over the constant music that makes you feel at times like you’re in one of the nearby casino nightclubs. There’s a restaurant, a side area to gamble on putting contests (it is Vegas, after all), and a giant digital scoreboard that flashes live scores and stats that rival what you see at a PGA Tour event. But beyond the glitzy setup and artificial greens is a fierce fight for real prize money. This feels like a serious golf tournament -- even if competitors show up with only one club.
In the past decade, the National Golf Foundation has begun tracking off-course forms of entertainment that involve hitting balls with golf clubs, but putting-only activities have yet to be factored in. This would be like not counting people who play H-O-R-S-E as basketball participants. And while the number of overall golfers has decreased by nearly two million in the past five years to 23.8 million in 2016, the NGF documented 20 million people participating in other off-course forms of golf -- which also take a lot less time than playing a full round -- in 2016, an 11-percent increase from the previous year. Why is it important that putting count toward these numbers other than making the game’s participation stats look healthier? Because while putting is often a gateway into playing real golf, real golf can also be a gateway into putting.
Take Brian Johnson, a 46-year-old from Fort Wayne, Ind., who was a single-digit handicapper who now exclusively focuses on putting and competes in an event on most weekends throughout the year.
“In Europe, putting is a much bigger deal, but we’re trying to grow it and we’re slowly getting better. And we’re hoping events like this will increase the popularity,” Johnson said. “You can’t make a living playing pro mini golf, but if we grow the game, maybe we can start doing that.”
You can argue Taylor Montgomery already is. The former UNLV golfer who recently turned pro took home $75,000 -- the MSOP’s largest first-place check -- by winning the Stroke Play Championship. He earned another $15,000 with fellow UNLV grad and Web.com Tour player Kurt Kitayama in the Team Championship. And another former college teammate, Redford Bobbitt, didn’t do so bad either, earning more than $25,000 throughout the series of events, including taking down one of the Turbo Singles tournaments.
“Well, I guess I’ve got my first pro win,” Bobbitt said while holding a vanity check for $15,000. “I was joking I always wanted one of those big checks. In a million years, I wouldn’t have guessed I’d get one at a putting contest, but I’m not complaining.”
The Major Series of Putting’s structure is similar to the World Series of Poker, which also convenes every year in Las Vegas, and features a mix of pros and dreamers looking to hit the jackpot. Jeff Gibralter, a 49-year-old professional poker player from Dallas, is one of those people who has now experienced both events and sees the potential for a putting boom the same way poker went through a popularity craze following amateur Chris Moneymaker winning the Main Event in 2003.
“Because it’s on this surface, it brings more people into the fold,” said Gibralter, who won one of the mini turbo events and placed third in the stroke play for a nice payday. “I’d love to see that happen because it’s fun. It’d be cool if it did.”
Mitch McDowell, a teaching pro at Mesa Country Club who also competes on the World Long Drive Tour said he plans on running his own qualifier next year and that many golf clubs will follow suit.
“It’s the same kind of grassroots qualifying [as long drive], yet everyone can participate because you don't have to be able to hit a golf ball 350 yards. Anyone can putt, so it’s pretty cool,” McDowell said. “This is a better format, more organized and a better setup than we have in long drive, and I’ve been doing that for 13 years.”
Admit it, you're thinking Hey, I'm a pretty good putter. . . right now. Well, then you should know there were more than 1,000 participants (and just as many putting styles) in the inaugural MSOP with most earning spots into events via qualifiers that took place in 14 cities throughout the year. Others plunked down entry fees ranging from $250 to $11,000.
“I’m OK with losing the money,” said Matt Male, a 33-year-old pro mini-golfer from Columbus, who put up $1,000 to enter the All Pro Competition. Male missed the cut by a stroke, but so did 10-time PGA Tour winner John Cook, who he was able to commiserate with in the players’ lounge. “This experience was totally worth it.”
Rainey Statum, who caught the attention of everyone, including Faxon, by being the stroke-play medalist in the All Pro Competition by four shots, agreed.
“I lay tile and I play putt-putt,” said Statum, 55, who had a much-needed and successful trip to Vegas after having to be rescued from his Houston home during Hurricane Harvey. “My friends can’t believe I’m competing against guys like Brad Faxon and John Cook. This is the coolest.”
Statum didn’t advance in the match-play portion of the All Pro, which featured a handful of other current or former PGA Tour pros. But the event did get a David vs. Goliath matchup in the final as recent Cal Poly grad Cole Nygren knocked off Colt Knost. Not that Faxon, who Knost beat in the semifinals, was surprised that one of the bigger names didn't win.
“I was really nervous on my first few putts,” said the man who was always regarded as one of the best putters during his career. “[The PGA Tour guys] have more pressure because everyone is out to get us. And everybody’s on equal ground when it comes to putting.”
Of course, when discussing an outdoor event in Las Vegas, it’s impossible not to think of what happened last month less than two miles away at Mandalay Bay, where Steven Paddock killed 59 people and injured hundreds more by firing into a crowd of concert goers.
“Obviously, it was concerning. We felt because we’ve been here the past two months, we felt part of the community that got together and just tried to move on from that terrible situation,” MSOP president Guillaume Beland said. “But there was no discussion about cancellation, and I think that’s the general mood of everyone. We don’t want it to affect our way of living.”
Beland also hopes to have a year-round putting presence in Sin City.
“We did it to prove to everyone that we can do it and that it works as a business model,” Beland said. “We want to stay, we want to build this permanently and we wanted to show that it works. For competition, for corporate events and for kids and families. And that we can build programming that goes on 365 days a year.”
Beland doesn’t have to look far to be reminded of a similar model that has found huge success. The nets of Topgolf’s Vegas location loom about a pitching wedge away from the MSOP Stadium. However, the MSOP’s spacious 18-hole course built by Southwest Greens in conjunction with Nicklaus Design is expected to be torn down shortly after the competition ends Nov. 5. It makes the $2.2 million the stadium cost -- and how quickly it came together -- even more impressive. As big as the course is, though, it takes up a fraction of the land required by a Topgolf, which already has a series of tournaments around the country, including a finale in Vegas. MSOP seems to be following Topgolf's lead, but is also looking into smaller indoor models around the country.
Even if the MSOP stadium gets torn down, Beland says the event is here to stay. And it’s hard to imagine there won’t be an even larger turnout in 2018 with a MSOP Tour planned in eight different cities and word of mouth from those who made the trip to Vegas this year -- some from far away.
“We play tournaments for money, but not for this kind of money,” said Sweden’s Anders Olsson, who is considered by many to be the world’s greatest mini-golf player. “This is really exciting, it’s really fun to play. They’ve done a great job with this event.”
“People were skeptical, but I promise there will be a lot more putt-putt guys coming,” Johnson added.
Vegas, you’ve been warned.