Pumped up for Putt-Putt

For much of my youth, summers were centered around fuzzy navels, orange balls and the No. 50.

Confused? You should be. Strange? Not as bad as you think. Fun? You bet.

My father and I would cap off a warm, summer night with fuzzy navel-flavored shaved ice (I still don’t know why it’s called that). Before the treat, we’d play a round of miniature golf at the Putt-Putt in Boardman where hole-in-ones were always honored with a special orange ball (so much cooler than a green or red).

And, besides a hole-in-one, our ambition was always to break 50 (even though par is set at 36).

Guys like Rick Baird laugh at that goal. He’s the most recent player to shoot a perfect score of 18 in a professional tournament. Baird pulled it off in Richmond, Va. three years ago and he’ll get another chance this weekend in Warren. The Putt-Putt on Youngstown Rd. will host its second Professional Putters Association Northern Open on Saturday and Sunday.

“We’ll have between 40 and 50 guys coming in from all over the country,” said Renea Ackerman, owner of the Putt-Putt for more than 30 years. “It’s one of just five large tournaments hosted each year and we’re lucky to be hosting it again.”

The event was last held in Warren in 2010. The wait was worth it for city native Dave Jones. He’s been a PPA member since 1974 with a personal best score of 21, including 15 holes-in-one in the round.

“It’s a top-five course in the country, right here in our backyard,” Jones said. “Not only for the strength of the course, and it is a very tough course, but for the way it’s maintained. The Ackerman family does an amazing job of keeping it in tip-top shape.”

Recently, Jones has participated in tournaments in Buffalo, finishing fourth overall. In April, he played in the Memphis Western Open and finished in 26th place.

“I was pleased with myself after not hitting a ball since September,” Jones said.

In May, he played in a state-level tournament in Monroeville, Pa. “and I stunk it up,” Jones admits. “We’ll leave it at that.”

Jones, a retired steelworker, is loyal to the Putt-Putt brand. Though they lack the Myrtle Beach-style waterfalls, life-sized giraffes and Happy Gilmore clown faces, Putt-Putt courses are designed so that a hole-in-one is achievable on each hole. The curves, hills and drop-offs aren’t nearly as dramatic as courses like Sports World in Boardman or Creekside, near the Golf Dome, in Girard. Those holes require luck, though. With Putt-Putt, it takes skill.

“With a lot of those adventure courses, the side rails are bricks or something,” Jones said. “The bounces are terribly inconsistent. Plus, you’re just playing for fun.

“Putt-Putts have aluminum or fiberglass walls, which are much more consistent in the kick you get. It’s more of a game of skill. It’s learning to read the green and learning which shot is best and getting it down by practice.”

Unfortunately, opportunities to practice regularly are running thin. In its heyday, there were Putt-Putt courses throughout Northeast Ohio in Boardman, Elyria, Lorain, Olmstead Falls and Willoughby. They are all now all closed. In the early 1970’s, a 72-hole Putt-Putt complex was built in Columbus specifically for national tournaments.

The Hollywood Casino now stands in its place on Georgesville Road.

“Putt-Putt, itself, is sort of dying slowly,” Jones said. “It’s kind of going the way of bowling. There are very few leagues and you’ll see that a lot of guys coming out this weekend are in their 60’s. It’s an older sport and there’s not much money to be had.”

Putt-Putt Fun Centers operate out of 46 locations in 16 states. Other Ohio locations include Defiance, Springfield and Upper Sandusky. There’s hope that this weekend will fuel more interest in the sport and expand the business reach of the long-standing establishment on Route 422.

“Three years ago, it was hard to convince some of the professionals to come all the way out to Warren, Ohio for a tournament because it’s out of the way,” Jones said. “Then we got them here, they’re back and they love it because it’s a quality place.”

Maybe after, we can all go out for a fuzzy navel to celebrate.