When a news segment about a quirky sport starts with one of the competitors taking a long drag off a cigarette, that could lead to questions about whether said competition is, in fact, a sport. To this end, the narrator of that VICE report didn’t mince words when articulating the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association’s primary challenge: “Nobody thinks mini-golf is a real sport.”
Sports betting regulators in the Rocky Mountain region beg to differ. On Halloween, Colorado approved wagering on U.S. ProMiniGolf Association (USPMGA) events and, three days later, neighboring Wyoming followed suit.
Upon learning that miniature golf, an activity most closely associated with cheesy family vacations and frozen-in-time amusement parks, had been approved for wagering in Colorado, Sports Handle reached out to all of the state’s sports betting operators — some two dozen in all — to see if they had requested that the wagering option be added. Responses generally ranged from “uh, no” to “you’re kidding, right?”
More matter-of-factly, Jeffrey Benson, Circa’s sportsbook operations manager, replied, “It wasn’t us and we have no interest in this market,” meaning the mini-golf betting option.
So who was it? A logical assumption would be that MaximBet, which unsuccessfully sought the ability to accept wagers on the Puppy Bowl, boasted the requisite creative moxie to make such a request — but it wasn’t that sportsbook.
In fact, it wasn’t a sportsbook at all that made the request. It was U.S. Integrity, a “vendor minor” licensee in Colorado that, from an image standpoint, is the trusty, brown wingtip to MaximBet’s sequined, thigh-high boot.
‘The PGA of mini-golf’
Call the number listed on the USPMGA’s charmingly retro website and you’ll be greeted by an employee of Hawaiian Rumble MiniGolf in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The putt-putt course is one of a handful owned by USPMGA founder Bob Detwiler and his son, Ted. It plays host to the tour’s signature Masters tournament in October.
With plans to add a “classic series” in February, the tour has been in existence for 26 years, with sanctioned courses all over the country, as well as Canada and Belize.
“You can’t just have a pro mini-golf event at any course,” said Billl Yucatonis of Pro League Network, which helped guide wagering on the tour to approval in Colorado and Wyoming. “There are layout constraints. There are standards up to and including the balls and the equipment.”
“We want to be like the PGA,” added the elder Detwiler. “That’s what we are, the PGA of mini-golf.”
That may be the case. However, the prize money is a relative pittance, with the winner of a USPMGA tournament typically earning $5,000 of a $25,000 total purse. But with wagering on the horizon in the Mountain West and potentially elsewhere — Detwiler hopes to gain clearance in “all states that approve betting on sports” — there is optimism that players will be able to earn more.
“That’s our goal: to reach a higher level so these guys can make a living,” said Detwiler.
Laugh if you want, but mini-golf’s touring pros take their sport seriously. Elite players often require just 24 strokes to get through 18 holes, and some will arrive at a tournament location weeks in advance to get a feel for a given course’s idiosyncrasies.
“You’ve got guys hitting holes-in-one left and right,” said Ted Detwiler.
Ted added that while some lower-level pros and long-drive competitors have participated in mini-golf tournaments, it has yet to attract any former PGA or LPGA players. (John Daly has been known to suck down a lung dart or nine while walking the course, so maybe he’ll blaze a trail.) But when Paula Creamer and Rickie Fowler recently competed against some mini-golf pros at a Tiger Woods-designed PopStroke course in Sarasota, Florida, “Creamer got creamed and Fowler got fowled,” Bob quipped.
Stars align behind quirky sport
Woods isn’t the only top-flight athlete to take an interest in mini-golf. Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, an avid golfer who’s competed in some minor-league tourneys, created a network television show, Holey Moley, dedicated to the putt-putt version of the sport, while Barstool hosts an annual mini-golf invitational for its employees.
“If those two things didn’t exist, I think it’d be a tougher sell,” Ali Schempp, head of business development for U.S. Integrity, said of the Curry and Barstool endeavors.
U.S. Integrity began working with the USPMGA earlier this fall, vetting the association’s policies on gambling, drug use, and other matters of self-governance to make sure they passed regulatory muster.
“We did more due diligence on this than other leagues because of the ‘perception,’” Schempp said during a Zoom interview, forming quotation marks around “perception” with his fingers. “They have a lot better policies and procedures in place than other leagues.”
To the best of Sports Handle’s knowledge, no major mobile sportsbook has launched mini-golf betting markets just yet. (Incidentally, while Wyoming has authorized legal wagering on the controversial LIV Tour, Colorado has not.) U.S. Integrity has completed what Schempp calls “phase one” — clearing regulatory hurdles and the like — and is ready to reach out to the many operators it works with to gauge interest in the nascent market as part of “phase two.”
While U.S. Integrity’s role in bringing legal mini-golf wagering to fruition might strike some as peculiar, Schempp explained, “We have close-enough relationships so we can reach out to regulators and gauge the temperature. We do that with a lot of states. Colorado has a wide wagering menu, so they’re one of the states we reach out to first. Colorado was one of the first sports betting states. They are as educated and savvy in the sports betting space as any regulator out there.”