Showdown at Buccaneer Bay

PGA Tour golfers Duffy Waldorf and Dave Stockton Jr. duke it out on Colorado’s baddest 18.

It was two days before The International, an annual PGA Tour event held for years in the Denver suburbs, and Duffy Waldorf’s game was unraveling like one of Kramer’s Seinfeld schemes. He and Dave Stockton Jr., then Tour rivals, had agreed to a preliminary challenge match at Buccaneer Bay, a short but tricky Denver-area miniature golf course that places a premium on course management and reading greens. The round was supposed to cement Waldorf’s confidence, but it wasn’t working out that way.

“This putting surface looks fast,” Waldorf, a four-time Tour winner said warily, eyeballing the twelfth hole — the “Swinging Post Hole” — a tightly guarded par three. He hadn’t played tournament golf since missing the cut at the U.S. Open six weeks earlier, and one could sense his unease. Stockton, leading by two strokes at that point and whose best Tour finish was second, was unsympathetic. “Roll it up there,” he goaded his opponent.

Waldorf, wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt and wrap-around shades, hefted his putter. Its blade was made of hard black rubber that had the feel of a hockey puck. His ball, rubber coated, was Tropicana orange. He lined up what seemed to be a straight, simple ten-foot birdie putt — that is, if you discounted the six-foot padded post that swung like a wrecking ball over the cup, waiting to swat away any mistimed shot.

If, as golf guru Harvey Penick says, “nothing is more important psychologically than knocking putts into the hole,” then Hyland Hills Adventure Golf — then rated by the Denver Post as the best miniature golf complex in the state — might be the ideal place for a hardworking pro to work on his stroke. Buccaneer Bay, with its pirate ship motif, is the most challenging of complex’s three courses and was designed to test a golfer’s putting skill. This did not bode well for Waldorf, who at the time ranked as the Tour’s 184th best putter, or for Stockton Jr., who ranked 87th and played in the shadow of his father, Dave Stockton, twice the PGA Championship winner, who was known for his superb touch on the green.

Waldorf and Stockton Jr. halved holes one and two — both easy setups — with each scoring a birdie. But on number three, the par-two “Mission Hole,” which calls for a firm shot over a narrow drawbridge and through an ersatz adobe castle that leads to the green, Stockton Jr.’s ball veered left, smacked into a trestle and ricocheted back to the tee. He stared at the ball and then at his feet. “I’m better than this,” he muttered, loud enough for Waldorf to hear.

He was still trailing by a stroke when they came to number seven, a par-three that called for a carom off the side of an uphill ramp to a cup encircled by four mushroom-shaped pegs.

“I gotta get serious,” Stockton Jr. urged himself. He stepped to the ball and banged home a fifteen-footer for a hole-in-one. When Waldorf lipped out his second putt and had to settle for a three, Stockton Jr. pumped his fist, Tiger Woods-style. Minutes later, he bagged a second ace at number eleven, the “Windmill Hole.” Grinning at Waldorf, he hitched up his jeans and crowed, “Yeah!”

“I’m a competitive person who makes his living playing a competitive sport,” Stockton Jr. would later explain. “I don’t want to finish second in anything. I was out to win.”

The match seemed to be building toward number twelve, the aforementioned “Swinging Post Hole.” There is a chute about ten feet from the tee that guides the ball toward the cup. Stockton Jr. made it, carding an uneventful par three.

Waldorf missed. His ball landed in a particularly tough lie that required him to negotiate a double dogleg. His second shot left him still ten feet short of the hole. “I wonder if I should put on my golf glove,” Waldorf said, confronting the gravity of his situation. The gallery of five, which included four young course employees and Stockton Jr.’s father-in-law, fell silent.

According to defending Buccaneer Bay tournament champion George Suazo, sixteen, who works summers at the course picking up trash, “if you’re far away from the hole like Duffy, you have to wait till the post is right over the hole and then putt.” But Waldorf, who was playing the round without his caddie, lacked this sort of inside information. His second putt bounced off the post like an errant tee shot that had hit a tree. His third shot was more of the same. He finally crippled in with a bogey four. “Well, the rout is on,” Waldorf groused, as he walked to the thirteenth tee.

Stockton gained two more strokes over the final six holes, finishing with a twelve-under-par 38. Waldorf staggered to a 43. He seemed discouraged, until someone noted that he’d shot seven under par. “I don’t do that very often,” Waldorf admitted.

As for Stockton, he was ready to celebrate — until he learned that the course record, 24, had been set by a twelve-year-old.

In the end, the round didn’t help either with their game. Perhaps the pressure of two intense competitions within a week proved too much for the golfers. That weekend at The International, both missed the cut.

This piece originally ran in Golf & Travel magazine.

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Ron Berler

Author of “Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000* Failing Public Schools.” Has written for the New York Times Magazine, Wired and ESPN.com.