Putt-Putt Fun Center | 1340 North Church Street, Burlington

They came from High Point and Charlotte, from Virginia and South Carolina, from Kentucky and Pennsylvania. They wore baseball caps, cotton pants, and Under Armour polo shirts. They were about 90 in number, a far-flung yet close-knit society coming together, as they had so many times before, to make a new champion. They brought their own clubs.

Their arena was the pair of miniature golf courses at the Putt-Putt Fun Center in Burlington, which has been on North Church Street since 1962. On the weekend of June 5 and 6, it hosted the Professional Putters Association’s annual PPA Invitational Tournament and its amateur counterpart, the APA.

During the penultimate round on Sunday afternoon, the unrelieved sun made the minigolf franchise’s distinctive orange trim and green carpets appear to blaze. But the play was cool and methodical. Shows of agony were restrained to soft groans and dark laughs, though camaraderie was evident in the back slaps and shoulder squeezes that passed among these men who reunited—a few times a year, somewhere in America—to do their favorite thing. Though each competed alone, they played in pairs. They kept their own scores, with only their fellow putters and a few family members to cheer them on.

Here was Graham Sigmon, a polite, sun-pinked 12-year-old from Madison, North Carolina. Despite his young age, he finished mid-pack, just a few places behind his dad, in the amateur division. It was won by Earl Davis, whose brief speech about his emotional final hole was warmly received. He was the only African American player in the tournament, which was otherwise composed almost entirely of white men of at least middle age.

Here was Ken Hastings of Pittsburgh, who has been crisscrossing the county for PPA events with his friend John Bambling for 50 years. Neither of them did so well, but Hastings didn’t seem to mind.

“He’s heard all my jokes 77 times, and he still gives me a chuckle,” he said of Bambling. “We do it because we love the game.”

Here was Joe Aboid, the PPA’s commissioner since 1985, who has the shorn pate, kind eyes, and tired, patient voice of a beloved college professor. He gave up competitive play when he went to work for the company and got “more interested in making sure the carpets were clean than in scoring an ace.” He sold his course in Virginia a few years ago, and now just runs the tournaments—a volunteer position.

And here was owner-operator Brian Patterson, a youthful 48-year-old Burlington native whose clean, well-kept courses have earned the PPA’s respect. When he drove down to Fernandina Beach, Florida, for the PPA championship last year, he wanted to see the oldest Putt-Putt in existence, but he had another motive, too. He wanted to ask Aboid, who allocates tournaments to the dwindling number of official Putt-Putt courses that remain, for one more chance to host one.

In the week before the tournament, Patterson announced to the PPA community that it would be his last before he sold his business—the only place he’s ever worked, other than a couple of teenage jobs—to a new owner, a man from Maryland named John Wilder, in August.

Besides Patterson’s retirement, the talk of the tourney was Randy Reeves, an Alabaman who broke a PPA record by scoring 26 consecutive holes-in-one. But in the last round, all eyes were on Greg Newport of South Carolina and Kevin Rutledge of Tennessee, who were locked in a close battle, and who had history. Newport knew the course well and had won several tournaments before. Rutledge had never played in Burlington or won a national tournament, though he had often lost to Newport by a single stroke.

When Newport’s daughter found Rutledge practicing, he’d said, “Tell your daddy not to worry. He’ll still beat me by one.”

But after the underdog from Tennessee aced the 17th, taking a daring route in between a pair of metal triangles, the friendly rivals tied, initiating a playoff—18 holes, one on one. With everyone else, Brian Patterson drew in close to watch.

Don Clayton founded Putt-Putt in Fayetteville in 1954, deep in the postwar leisure boom. The company once had more than 300 franchises around the world, though now it’s down to a few dozen in the South and East, with outposts in Texas and California. Among brands so iconic that they became proper nouns, it is unique: whereas a Kleenex really is just a facial tissue, Putt-Putt is not just minigolf. Beneath the family fun lies a schematic, no-frills game geared for technical competitive play.

The PPA, which Clayton founded under a different acronym in 1959, competes exclusively on Putt-Putt courses. This was one of two national tournaments—the other, larger one will be in Richmond, Virginia, in September—that it runs for dues-paying members each year. The competitors had already proven their mettle on the local circuit and earned the cosign of a trusted operator like Patterson. The top prize in Burlington was $1,200.

The greens were outlined by orange bump boards and dotted with orange obstacles: simple bricks, triangles, discs, posts, and brackets, all made of the same extruded aluminum, which gives a consistent bounce. The holes—each a par-two on which a hole-in-one is possible—were hidden in plain sight, resting on curves or behind angular scoops. It’s all by the book of regulation designs that the company dispenses to franchisees.

“It’s not like when you say, ‘Let’s go play putt-putt’ at Myrtle Beach,” Patterson says. “We pride ourselves on it being more of a skill-based game, as opposed to just hoping you get lucky and hit the ball in a clown’s mouth.”

As a kid, Patterson liked coming to “Super Saturdays,” when you could play all the Putt-Putt and video games you wanted for a flat fee. In the beginning, it’s not that he was all that ardent about minigolf—he just liked being there, goofing off and eating pizza.

As a high school junior, he needed a part-time job; his uncle was a manager at the Putt-Putt, so he got one there. He started as an attendant in the game room, where tokens, plastic prizes, and games of minigolf changed into one another in an endless loop of small rewards.

When he went to UNC-Charlotte, he kept coming back to work at the Putt-Putt on weekends. After one semester there and a few nearer to home, his upslope momentum ran out and his life rolled back into the hole it had been bound for, all along.

“When I quit college, I was like ‘All right, Brian, you gotta figure out what you’re gonna do with your life. If you like working at Putt-Putt, let’s ask [owner] Bobby [Gilmore] if you can be his manager, try to learn the trade and see where it goes,’” he says.

After several years as manager, Patterson bought the business in 2001. Now he’s also a married father of two teenage boys, one of whom will be among the dozen employees he brings on this summer, when camp and daycare kids will pour through by the busload. But during slower times, he’s often the only one there.

When Patterson bought this franchise, it had already adapted to the arcade boom, and subsequent arcade crash, of the 1980s and 90s. He has weathered the 2008 economic crash by shortening off-season hours; and the coronavirus pandemic by sheer luck and dedication.

“I’m just thinking I’ve had enough Putt-Putt fun, and it’s time to have a midlife crisis and change gears,” Patterson says, laughing. “I would really like to find myself in something a little more lucrative and easier on my body. People think I’m just standing behind the counter, selling Putt-Putt, but there’s a lot more to it, the painting and pressure-washing and mowing and blowing and weeding and scrubbing bathrooms.”

He’ll miss the place, the people, and the local celebrity. “It’s kind of cool when you go out in town, and kids go, ‘Mommy, that’s the Putt-Putt guy!’” he says. But inasmuch as Putt-Putt is about doing the same thing the same way in the same place, again and again, deceptively simple obstacles can be hard to overcome and apparently unshakable patterns can suddenly change.

“Do your thing, Rut!” someone yelled before the 16th hole of the playoff. Newport took practice swings in the grass nearby. A little girl ran by wearing plastic fangs from the arcade. Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” played softly on the PA. Rutledge skimmed it twice for a bogey, bringing his rival within range, before rallying to defeat Newport by one stroke.

A few minutes later, Rutledge was among the well-wishers who came to embrace him, but the crowd was already thinning out. Some people had very long drives, and anyway, most of them would see each other in Richmond in the fall. 

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