Monday, September 29, 2003

The proof is in the putting? Yes, indeed

Colerain woman competes on mini-golf tour

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COLERAIN TOWNSHIP - Robin Ventura is big in Putt-Putt golf. The Colerain Township woman, an aspiring model who strolls the catwalk in Cincinnati bridal shows, is an aerospace engineering student at the University of Cincinnati who interned this summer with NASA.

But the 20-year-old's true passion is watching her dimpled white ball roll along the carpet and rattle into the 3-inch-wide cup. And she does it in the highly competitive, modestly lucrative world of professional Putt-Putt.

She's the only woman on the Professional Putters Association tour and may be the best female putter - er, putt-putter - in the world. She won her third professional tournament last year by shooting a perfect back nine - "perfect" meaning nine aces in a row.

For Ventura, Putt-Putt is a lifestyle - one that has brought her winnings of about $5,000, she says.

Her father, John Ventura, also of Colerain Township, putted professionally in the 1980s, winning more than $10,000. Her boyfriend, Kevin Lacey, 32, of White Oak, has won more than 60 state and national Putt-Putt tournaments and more than $80,000 in a decade on tour.

"Most people think it's pretty cool, actually," Lacey says. "If they laugh at us, we just tell them how much money we make. It's just a hobby, and you can get a couple thousand dollars for a weekend's work. Not bad."

One recent evening, a couple of days before Ventura would finish third in the Great Lakes Tour regional championship, the putting partners walked the thin green carpets of the Hamilton Putt-Putt Golf and Games off Ohio 4 and discussed the finer parts of the game.

They talked about "finding the shot" - figuring the perfect angle, the perfect speed, the perfect bounce off the aluminum rail that gives the best chance for an ace.

"If you've never been to a course before, you don't know what shot gives you the best chance," Ventura says. "You can make a hole 10 different ways."

An ace is the goal in Putt-Putt. A deuce - making the two-stroke par - is acceptable. Anything more is failure in this competitive league where 12-under par for 18 holes puts you near the top.

"This is really just a great source for real competition," Ventura says.

"I don't know if it would matter if it were tiddlywinks," says Lacey, who holds the course record at one of the country's best courses, in Augusta, Ga., with a 17-under on 18 holes. "It's just the competition of it. That's what I love. What makes it fun is being in the hunt."

Most tournaments come down to the last few holes, and that's when the pressure mounts.

"The difference between being nervous and being pumped up - it's all in the head," says Lacey, dragging his Ping Anser 2 putter along the green. "It's the same adrenaline rush. It's a head game.

"The main thing is, you gotta be cocky. You gotta be overconfident. It's just how you handle your nerves. All in your mind."

As part of the Professional Putters Association, Lacey and Ventura lightheartedly dismiss a rival competing tour, the Professional Miniature Golf Association, as "minor league" or "gooney golf."

"It's awful," Ventura says. "They're not athletes."

"We're not athletes, either," Lacey says.

"Well, I'd consider myself an athlete," Ventura replies.

"I mean, I consider myself an athlete, too," Lacey corrects himself. "But not because of putt putt."

Putt-Putt skills, however, don't necessarily convert to skills on regulation golf courses.

The two say they both shoot upward of 100 on an 18-hole course.

"But," Ventura says, pointing a finger in the air, "we're good on the green."

Pro Putt-Putt History

In 1955, the first local tournament was held in Fayetteville, N.C., with the winner receiving a free vacation to Miami Beach.

First national putting competition was held in 1957. The winner, Warren Gaines, took home a 1957 Cadillac.

Putt-Putt Professional Golfers Association (PPPGA) was formed in 1959. The name was changed after the 1960 season to the Professional Putters Association

Over the years the PPA has grown both in popularity and in prize money offered. More than $7.5 million in prize money has been awarded.

Source: Professional Putters Association



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