The mood is tense at the Masters National Pro minigolf Championship in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Dozens of competitors are waiting to tee off, among them a freckled sprite with a homemade red-white-and-blue manicure. Meet Olivia Prokopova, a little girl who's a big threat to the grown-ups in one of the most important tournaments on the miniature golf calendar.
That's right, mini golf. It may not be on prime-time ESPN yet, but boardwalk putt-putt has become a lot more sophisticated of late, with groomed sand traps replacing mock windmills. "Adventure courses" modeled on full-scale links are cropping up across the country. And the best players now compete for cash (mostly small change, but up to $4,000) on an international circuit of tournaments.
Olivia, a strawberry-blond prodigy from the Czech Republic, has been on the tour since 2002—when, at age seven, she placed third in the Masters, beating women six times her age. She travels with a trainer (a Czech former mini-golf champ) and her enthusiastic father, Honza, who says Olivia's been putting since age three. Today, she's home-schooled and practices five hours a day—by choice, she insists—in their backyard course west of Prague. Twice a year she stops in Myrtle Beach, which, with its 60-odd courses, is the epicenter of the sport.
After the game, talk turns to what she loves about America: McDonald's caramel sundaes and swimming in the Atlantic. "If I get a good score," she says, "I buy a new Barbie." Does she aspire to be the Tiger Woods of mini golf?"I like to play Tiger Woods PGA Tour on my PlayStation." Spoken like a true 11-year-old.