The rest of the field were, almost literally, blown away. On Sunday afternoon, 18-year-old schoolgirl Olivia Prokopova won the World Crazy Golf Championships on a windswept Hastings seafront by the incredible margin of 21 shots. In doing so, she became the first female winner of this most prestigious of the UK’s miniature golf tournaments. And as the holder of the US Masters and US Open Minigolf titles, she can lay a fair claim to being the best in the world at the short-form game.
On one round she managed six holes-in-one out of 18, which is far from unusual for a player who first picked up a putter in her home town of Radovnik at three years old, and once came third in this tournament at the age of just eight years old.
So how has she held her own in a male-dominated sport when so many other women, for one reason or another, seem to have struggled?
Any game with ‘crazy’ in its name is bound to have an image problem when it comes to being respected in the super-serious sporting world at large. But the small community of minigolf (basically a specialist putting-only version of the game) enthusiasts in the UK and America are every bit as dedicated as their better-known, driver-wielding counterparts. None more so than Prokopova, who practises up to 12 hours a day, and took unofficial leave (known in the trade as ‘bunked off’) from high school for a week to travel across Europe last Monday for five days’ preparation on the Championship course.
“Maybe I shouldn’t take time off school,” she admits, “but this is the big one.”
In the wider golfing world, Minigolf is seen as a way of getting youngsters into the sport, even if Tiger Woods has been spotted trying his hand at the game before (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTn-eoXDCkw). But it still attracts a keen, if mostly middle-aged and male, group of players. And while the old golfing maxim says “drive for show, putt for dough,” Woods and co could still learn a thing or two from their crazy cousins. Indeed, some top players boast that they would easily outplay the likes of Rory McIlroy if they challenged them on the kind of greens that feature a windmill or water fountain blocking your path to glory.
Some minigolfers pay forensic attention to detail, with up to 50 different temperature balls (carried in special thermally-controlled bags) of varying elasticity to help with rebounds and artificial hazards.
Not Prokopova, who puts her victory on Sunday down to a new ball introduced for all players in the tournament, which levelled the playing field. And while her opponents cursed the rapidly approaching St Jude’s storm, she shrugged off the conditions: “I enjoy it. I grew up playing in all sorts of weather – snow, wind, rain. So I’m used to it.”
Her perennially unruffled attitude has undoubtedly helped her as one of only nine women in the 78-strong field at this year’s event, and one of only three placed in the top 50. The fact that she won the women’s title along with her overall title, and there isn’t a men’s title, perhaps says something about the reduced expectations for the fairer sex.
Although you only find women regularly competing for top honours against men in sports such as Equestrian events and shooting, Prokopova seems blissfully unintimidated at going head-to-head with the boys.
“I don’t have any problems with that,” she says. “I get on well with other players, and they’re happy for me because they’ve known me since I was a kid.”
Top female US Minigolfer Astra Miglane-Stanwyck, who was US Open runner-up in 2001 – the closest any other woman has come to glory in this form of the sport – once said of playing men, “You have to have an attitude. You have to be psychologically stronger. You have to knock their confidence out.” Prokopova sees it more simply.
“There’s no reason why girls can’t do as well as men,” she says. “I practice every day for 15 years, so now I can.”