Susan Crane remembers taking her first strokes in miniature golf when she was no more than 4 or 5 years old. Thirty-five years later, the 39-year-old Soddy-Daisy resident is preparing for the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association's U.S. Open tournament this weekend in Jefferson City, Tennessee.
Just don't expect much hubris from the longtime player. Her first tournament, the Tennessee Open, taught her not to go in overly confident.
"I finished third to last," she recalled in a telephone interview about that 2021 reckoning. "But I didn't finish last."
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Like the Tennessee Open, the U.S. Open will be played at Mossy Creek Miniature Golf, an 18-hole, par-43 course about 30 miles northeast of Knoxville. Unlike the whimsically themed, quick-through courses in neighboring Sevier County's tourist meccas of Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Sevierville, Mossy Creek was designed for competition, owner Kyle Cutshaw said.
"When we built the course, we had tournament golf in mind," he said by phone. "We knew that players like to compete on a course that has a certain level of challenge but also a certain amount of predictability. The pros say it's challenging but fair. That's what they're looking for when they have these competitions."
Cutshaw said he put in a bid to host the U.S. Open, which changes cities each year, soon after he opened the course in 2018.
"Last year it was in Fort Myers, Florida. Next year it will be in San Antonio [Texas]. We're really excited to bring it to East Tennessee," he said.
The association also sponsors a Masters tournament that, like its professional golf namesake in Augusta, Georgia, always returns to the same city. In this case: North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, also home to the USA Training Center, where nationally ranked miniature golfers can train to represent the United States in international championships sanctioned by the World MiniGolf Sports Federation.
Crane, who works at the YMCA Healthy Living Center at North River, said she's had a passion for miniature golf since a beloved relative introduced her to the game in her early childhood.
"The first place I remember playing was the Putt-Putt on Lee Highway," said Crane, a graduate of Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "My great-great-aunt Ruth [Brown] took me, and she would take me to play all the time. We would have a blast at Putt-Putt."
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That Putt-Putt location operated from 1959 until 1985. Just down the road, Sir Goony's Family Fun Center, which opened in 1960, is still in business. Crane said the more fanciful layout at Sir Goony's is an occasional, just-for-fun destination, but she prefers the more straightforward approach of the 14-hole course at Topgolf in East Ridge when she's training and doesn't have time for the three-hour trip to Jefferson City.
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"I've been practicing really hard," she said. "I'm really excited to get a chance to play in another competition [her third]. I'm ready to get out there and have some fun."
Miniature golf's U.S. Open, which features 10 rounds over three days, is expected to draw a field of about 60 players Friday, Saturday and Sunday, according to Cutshaw. They must be USPMGA members to compete, but membership requires only an interest in the game and payment of $30 annual dues. The cash purse is $20,000, Cutshaw said.
Crane said she will be competing in the amateur division. Her husband, Philip, who also holds membership in the association, will be along but won't be competing.
"When I met Philip, we would plan our vacations on where we wanted to go play miniature golf," Crane said. "We've been to South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Alabama, and then the pandemic hit."
Rather than pilgrimages to affiliate courses out of state, she and her husband rode out the pandemic with season passes to Mossy Creek.
"That took the place of traveling," Crane said.
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Even if Crane knows the course going into the tournament, that doesn't mean she's conquered it. Like a regular golf course, Mossy Creek has water features and sand traps to challenge players. To "change it up and keep it interesting," as Cutshaw described it, some holes have multiple cups. During competition, tournament officials will cap different cups, depending on the round, to increase the level of difficulty.
"Another thing you have to take into consideration is the time of day," Crane said. "The heat of the day messes with the carpeting and the way the ball rolls."
As much as she enjoys the game, Crane said a large part of the appeal of professional miniature golf is the camaraderie among the players. They take the game seriously, but they're still having fun.
"No matter your ranking or skill level, you can come out here and feel like you're part of something," she said.
Besides, she added, "Any day you get to play mini golf is a good day."
Contact Lisa Denton at email@example.com or 423-757-6281.
Susan Crane on professional miniature golf:— Best advice she’s received: One of the golfers told me last year, ‘Never walk up to a tee box without some idea where you’re fixing to hit the ball. Come up with a plan.’ So whether I’m playing [at Mossy Creek], Sir Goony’s or Topgolf, I never walk up and blindly hit the ball. I’m thinking, ‘Where’s that break going to be? Is this a straight shot? Is there a hill? Should I bank it? Where do I need to bank it?’ Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”— Her biggest revelation: “One thing I learned by doing this is I was hitting the ball way too hard. I now hit the ball deliberately and try to figure out how much strength to put behind it, whether I need to hit it pretty good to get it up to an area or tap it and let gravity do its thing. If you blindly hit with as much strength as you have, it will definitely go all over the place.”— Strategies and superstitions: Part of the fun of casual play is choosing a brightly colored golf ball and getting the feel of a house putter, Crane said. The U.S. Open, however, requires the use of a silver Chromax ball, and she’ll play with the Bulls Eye putter she practices with. Crane always wears a fanny pack that contains a pencil and small notebook in which she has written prompts for how she has previously played holes. “It’s little notes to remind yourself ‘This is where I need to stand in the tee box’ or ‘It breaks to the left or right on this one.’” Also inside is a Red Power Ranger figurine, who accompanies her everywhere and whose adventures she chronicles on Instagram at Red_Ranger_Adventures.