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Arvia: Ball Fore hardly an easy walk for mini golf pros

17-year-old OliviProkopovCzech Republic lines up putt during first-day actiMinigolf U.S. Open National Championship Ball Fore Chicago Ridge. | Supplied photo

17-year-old Olivia Prokopova, of the Czech Republic, lines up a putt during first-day action in the Minigolf U.S. Open National Championship at Ball Fore in Chicago Ridge. | Supplied photo

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“Here, you hit a good shot, ace. You hit a good shot, bogey. You hit a bad shot, ace. ... you have to have luck.

“This is not a fair course.”

Olivia Prokopova, 17-year-old mini golf pro

Updated: August 30, 2012 6:21AM



Why is it every time a U.S. Open comes to the south suburbs, the venue gets trashed by the game’s cognoscenti?

First there was Olympia Fields Country Club in 2003. Now, it’s happening again, at Ball Fore, the Chicago Ridge layout that’s hosting the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association’s U.S. Open Championship.

Yes, there is such a thing. Ball Fore is hosting its second Open. And there’s not a windmill or a clown’s mouth in sight, though at least one player found the recently tweaked track more than gimmicky enough.

“Where we play the Masters, you hit a good shot, ace. You hit a bad shot, bogey,” miniature golf superstar Olivia Prokopova said. “Here, you hit a good shot, ace. You hit a good shot, bogey. You hit a bad shot, ace. ... you have to have luck.

“This is not a fair course.”

Ouch.

But, truthfully, the words read more harsh than they were spoken by Prokopova, a 17-year-old from the Czech Republic who was nice enough to chat with a reporter during her lunch break on Friday’s opening day of play.

Besides, Prokopova knows whereof she speaks.

She’s been making annual trips from her homeland since age 7 to compete on U.S. soil. She’s the defending U.S. Open champ and a three-time winner of the women’s crown; four times the winner of the women’s division of the Masters — the USPMGA’s oldest and most prestigious tourney — and overall Masters runner-up twice; the reigning Czech Open champ; and was the China Open champ as a 14-year-old.

Oh, yeah, and she’s been holed up in a Super 8 for two weeks with her coach and her father, playing Ball Fore for upward of eight hours a day, and she won the July 21 Illinois Open in Chicago Ridge by 15 shots.

So, she’s kind of a big deal.

“A little bit, at home,” she said. “I have been on TV. But for us, the big celebrities are National Hockey League players.”

To a select crowd in Chicago Ridge this weekend — the tourney began with five rounds Friday, had five more scheduled Saturday and concludes with two on Sunday — Prokopova is a focal point. At Thursday’s pre-tournament draw party, which determined Friday’s pairings, the crowd at Nick’s Pizza let out a collective “oooooh” when Prokopova was paired with Jay Klapper, who beat Prokopova in a playoff for the Masters title last year in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Klapper, a five-decade pro from Dacula, Ga., got his start in the Professional Putters Association, a tour that predates the USPMGA.

Though that duo were expected to duke it out for the title, attention quickly swung Friday to Goldston, N.C.’s Tim Tally. The retired teacher fired a course-record 31 in the first round, going 11-under par with five aces on the par 42 18-hole layout.

What went right?

“Just everything,” Tally said. “I prayed a lot before each shot for God to calm my nerves, and he did.”

Tally followed his 31 with rounds of 36, 37, 37 and 35 to finish the day tied for second at 176, three shots back of fellow North Carolinian Danny McCaslin. Prokopova was tied for fourth at 184, and Klapper 11th at 191.

In all, there were 35 pros vying for the $5,000 first prize, which pleased USPMGA president and founder Bob Detwiler. The former Hammond, Ind., high school teacher and coach bought a mini golf course — Myrtle Beach’s Hawaiian Rumble — when he left teaching, and in 1997 began hosting the Masters there.

While he concedes most folks “just don’t realize there’s a competitive side to it,” Detwiler trumpets mini golf as a sport.

“It opens the field up for a lot of people,” he said. “You don’t have to be a 250-pound, muscle-bound athlete.

“But it does take a lot of practice, determination and skill.”

Detwiler, at 69, was the oldest player in the pro field. The youngest player was 12.

In all, 13 states were represented in the field, along with Prokopova as the international contingent.

The competition? Spirited, but friendly.

Or, as Prokopova said of Klapper, “He’s a great guy, a great player.

“I like him.”

The course? Not so much ...



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