The green is sopping wet and the holes are filled with rainwater. The silver putters are glistening after a renegade shower that's drenched the course, giving way to an overcast afternoon in early May. But the players trudge on.
"See that gouge right there? Put the ball in the one and hit it just off the left side," says Ed Grajewski, a 30-year veteran of the game, professional putt-putt.
The "one" to which he refers is the divot where the putter places the golf ball. It's like the tee without the tee, usually a tiny hole on the hard rubber mat that sits on the edge of the green. Today, the weather isn't ideal for putting, but to old pros like Grajewski, no matter. They play year-round, in the spring rain and cold concrete of winter. They typically meet on Tuesdays.
The sun is beginning to peek from behind the clouds as we saunter onto the next hole. It's go time.
Grajewski, the 1991 state champion of the Professional Putters Association, and Gilbert Sharpe, the 1978 U.S. Amateur Putters Association match-play champion, have agreed to show me, an amateur, the pro's putting tricks of the trade.
Grajewski's tiny legs belie a large frame and a short body. Gilbert is a chatterbox, ready to dispense his knowledge of the game to anyone who'll listen. Putting has been their life, and it shows. Beaneath a baseball cap, Gilbert's dark hair hides his advancing age and deteriorating health he has many back, knee and foot ailments exacerbated by years of putting. The game's catching up to Grajewski too. Earlier this month he was hospitalized briefly for breathing troubles, only to have doctors tell him he has diabetes. Grajewski is 64; Sharpe 58.
A while ago, the two men played the kind of golf most people are familiar with. But their health, along with the expense of the long game, brought them to putt-putt. The game doesn't come without a physical toll, either. Each putter has a tiny suction cup at the end of the grip to alleviate all the bending over, for example.
But today it's all about the game.
"When the carpet is wet like this, it raises the stroke average at least one to one and a half strokes," Sharpe says. He lays the ball down and hits the shot, which comes just inches short of the cup. "That's what I mean." The sogginess of the carpet has made the ball roll slower, which sends the speed of the putting out of whack.
Luckily, in Richmond, they have a historic course on which to practice. It's the Putt-Putt Fun Center on eastern Midlothian Turnpike, the only professionally sanctioned putt-putt course in metro Richmond. It's been open since 1972. Its owner, Gary Hinshaw, has played for 35 years and is enshrined in the Professional Putters Association Hall of Fame in Cary, N.C.
Most of the pros prefer the game of putt-putt over the links because the game isn't so spread out in terms of time and distance. Playing 18 holes of golf can take an entire day; playing 18 holes of putt-putt consumes less than an hour. It is also an easier game to master. Driving a golf ball 250 yards requires a certain amount of skill and strength that putting a ball 20 feet just doesn't.
(Scoring is also a bit different. In putt-putt most professionals shoot in the 60s or 70s for a three-round game, while in golf most professionals shoot in the 70s for one round. In golf, there are four rounds while in putt-putt there are three.)
Grajewski and Sharpe seem to relish the idea of passing their pastime along to a novice. On the third hole, the putt is tricky a small hill is on the left and the hole is on an incline. The secret to sinking it is largely utilitarian, nothing fancy.
Placement of the ball at the beginning of the shot is crucial, Grajewski says, as are the angles. Pro putters set up the ball and read marks on the course, which serve as guidelines that almost all the players on the pro circuit follow.
Approaching the sixth hole, Sharpe piles on the pressure. "Well now, pros should hit this putt 95 percent of the time it's like a layup in basketball," he says of the straight-on nature of the hole. Both make the shot without a problem, banking the ball off the left rail to avoid the obstruction on the green.
Sharpe's eyes light up between the front and back nine when he talks about his 25-and-under and 30-and-under badges. He won them after shooting less than 25 and 30 strokes, respectively, in two rounds of an 18-hole game. In other words, at least 20 holes in one. To date, they represent Grajewski's crowning achievement.
"My wife said throw 'em away and I said no, you don't understand the work I had to put in for those," Grajewski says. If she only knew.
In professional putt-putt you really are lucky to cover your expenses. Through May 13, Grajewski is ranked ninth in the state in points, with $180 in prize winnings. Sharpe is 17th with $107 for the year.
On hole 13, the toughest-looking shot of the course, the pros divulge an inside secret. They never, ever "lay up." The hole is straight-on, no putting off the rails or pulling one way or the other, because the hole is surrounded by tiny hills. Hit the ball just a bit too hard and you're finished.
The 17th hole is another story. There's an aluminum hollow obstruction in the shape of a triangle in the middle of the green directly in front of the putter and the ball must be angled off the triangle. Most of the time, professionals will hit the triangle, but Sharpe whiffs it on his first attempt.
"I have maybe missed that triangle one other time in my life," he says, sulking. He's forced to take a 3, which is a killer. Indeed, a 3 will sink your tournament hopes in a single stroke. "Threes kill you in a tournament," Sharpe says.
Sharpe's tough luck is a harbinger of things to come, perhaps. He's not sure how much longer he'll be able to putt. Of course, Sharpe and Grajewski still have enough game to embarrass an amateur novice.
On the final hole, Grajewski proffers some advice. "I know a guy that decided to lay up his final two holes because he said if he ever shot his age, he'd quit. He was 62." In a fitting end to a friendly game, both men play to a draw. S