An Interview With Team USA

With the United States returning to major international competition for the first time in 15 years, and knowing some of the team from my USPMGA tournament experience, I caught up with them via email to capture their thoughts on the World Adventure Golf Masters held in Kosovo. I compiled, consolidated and picked some parts of the answers from: Matt Male (MM), Geoff Mosk (GM), Mike Johnson (MJ), Greg Newport (GN) and Matt Bellner (MB – alternate for the team). It’s a bit lengthy but I think everyone had great things to say about the experience, the hosts and the competition.

Q: How would you compare this experience to that of playing in a major USPMGA or Putt Putt tournament (the two major minigolf leagues in the USA)?

MM: It felt like a major on and off the course; in fact, it eclipsed the feel of most majors. The opening ceremony on Thursday night in the downtown square was a poignant indication of how prominent of an event this was for our sport. Just as is the case with majors here, the talent was very deep and stretched among many dozens of players.

GM: This was different from anything I had experienced before. Getting to meet players from other countries and see how they practice and play was something I was looking forward to and my expectations were met. The biggest thrill, and the most pressure, for me was getting to represent my country.

MB: I’ve worked PGA golf events and the Kosovo event felt like a small-scale version of a regulation PGA Golf tournament. The only thing missing was the cash prizes. Prize money always adds an element to a contest. The Kosovo event felt like the Olympics because everyone was rooting for the players from their respective countries.

MJ: The most striking difference was when there was an incredible putt, an ace for example, there was great celebration. In the states we often see tempers flare if someone makes a bad putt and that was notably absent during this tournament.

GN: It was definitely a different experience, not only from the course perspective, but from a competition level. I knew a couple of the players there, but seeing different styles opened my eyes because now all these guys have experience on the world level, so I knew they were very good.

Q: What was the hardest thing to adjust to on the course?

GM: The length and lack of rails. The course we played was easily 5 times longer than anything I had played before and probably more than that. Also it was the first course I had played that didn’t have rails to keep the ball in play. It was also an adjustment to have to learn how to us the hills and undulations to help shape my shots. It became a true test of putting as you had to make adjustments on the fly and think of the best ways to play a shot from somewhere you had not been before.

GN: The speed was one of the big adjustments. This carpet was much faster than what we play here in the states, but I enjoyed that. The holes are a lot longer than anything we played here. Imagine the longest holes in Allentown [Editor’s Note: Putt U – home of the 2016 US Open] and that is one of the shortest holes in Kosovo. On a smaller scale, we had to adjust to no rails or borders. In Kosovo, it was all about speed.

MJ: It sounds cliche, but every putt mattered. You had to respect every putt. A one-foot putt could break 6″ so before you hit every putt, regardless of the distance, you had to be patient and make sure you knew what it was going to do. There is no such thing as a tap-in on a course like this.

MM: The hardest aspect of the tournament to me, other than the equipment challenge, was trying to determine how the course’s many hills interconnected.

MB: 4-foot putts around the hole were VERY difficult because the turf was so fast and has a sand base. It’s the closest experience to regular golf I’ve ever played.

Q: How did the weather impact play over the weekend?

MJ: During the second round the heat was unbearable no matter how much you tried to stay cool. Unfortunately there was no shade on the course and no place to find air condition in-between rounds so we were out in the sun and heat all day. Drinks were cool, but not cold, and ice was non-existent in the country. Sports drinks, such as Gatorade, are not available in Kosovo. The combination of these factors made the heat difficult for those that are used to being “comfortable.”

MM: The impact of the weather was pretty big in my second round. My group had two rain delays in the second round, and I believe my round ended up lasting about five hours.

MB: I live in East Texas, so I’m used to putting in very hot conditions. I felt my experience putting in the heat gave me an edge on the players from countries with cooler climates.

GM: The rain that we had on Saturday caused a delay which made it as much of an endurance contest as a putting contest but I didn’t feel it had a big impact on the course. The heat I could tell got to some of the players but being from Texas it was still not as hot as I’m used to.

GN: It was very warm, but we were used to that. We did have a couple of storms that passed over Saturday afternoon that delayed play for about an hour total. It slowed down the carpets some but the course drains very well so there were no issues.

Editor’s Note: It’s amusing to see how the Texans were ok with the heat and everyone felt like they were going to die. As someone from the Northeast U.S., I would have been in the “going to die” camp.

Q: Were any of you surprised by how well Team USA did?

GM: I actually expected us to finish better with the caliber of players we had. I underestimated the skill level of the players from some other countries and also underestimated the effect of not having multiple balls to play.

MJ: With no recent teams from the US we had very little expectations as well and I believe that helped us. Now, after two top 10s, a bronze in the Seniors, and a 5th place for the team, the next team may feel pressure to do better. As competitors it is just natural progression.

MM: I’m not surprised about the good performance of Team USA because I know my three teammates are world-class players. We put in many hours of work every day we were there and had been practicing hard since learning we made the squad in the winter.

GN: It didn’t surprise me. We had a great team, a team that worked very hard to get the course down. We had a constructive week of practice, and I was very impressed with the way Geoff Mosk picked up on that type of minigolf since he had no experience. Mike worked very hard and his performance didn’t surprise me at all. I’m sure Matt would tell you he was disappointed in the way he played, but I think he did great over there. This team worked hard and I feel we deserved our finish, although I wish we did two strokes better so we could have stayed ahead of Austria…lol!

MB: I was not surprised. I felt the team was very prepared for the challenge of the course and major tournament play. Major PPA events are very high-level competitions here in the United States. The players that traveled to Kosovo had lots of experience in that atmosphere.

Previously Jon (Drexler – Team USA coach) had mentioned that this course would be a good one to reintroduce to Team USA on because the type of ball didn’t matter much and was down to pure putting. Did you guys think this was the case?

MM: From what I can tell, this event was about as close to our style of putting as it gets in terms of overseas competitions of this magnitude. Still, it was quite different. I was surprised about the impact of the balls. I think the balls made a difference in three ways: (1) The smallness of the other countries’ balls essentially made the cups a bit larger, which was especially critical in the 3-8-foot range or so. (2) The European balls absorbed the rocks instead of ricocheting off them, making staying in bounds easier at times. (3) The European balls sometimes rode the hills better and could avoid going out of bounds with less precise speed than was needed for real golf balls.

MJ: The ability to putt well was certainly more important than knowing the European equipment. We used a European ball on one hole, however if I had it to do over I would use our Chromax ball on all holes. This was an ideal course for Team USA to get started in international competition as it was more like golf than any minigolf we have here in the states.

GM: Once I got there and saw how others were playing some holes, I could see that there were other holes where the ball made a difference. I estimate that not having a variety of balls to play cost us about 2 strokes per round per player. That may have been the difference between us getting a medal and not. The Chromax balls played very well but on some holes it would have been beneficial to play a ball that would have a more dead bounce off of rocks or more bounce going down the lane.

MB: I feel there were only 2-3 holes that the international players had an advantage using non-dimpled mini-golf balls. Most players would switch to a smaller, low-bounce style ball on hole #17. That is an example of a hole that using a regular golf ball made an ace MUCH tougher. I’m proud of the fact that I played EVERY hole with a Chromax® golf ball. My main goal is to grow the sport of mini-golf and get companies involved as sponsors for tournaments or players. The international players were so thankful that Chromax® gave each player a WMF approved golf ball. I would say at least 75% of the players used a Chromax® ball during competition.

GN: I did feel that this was good to come back, and for the most part it was true about the ball. However, I think there were a few holes where using a European ball would have benefited us. We did play one hole with the European ball, the water jump hole where you needed a dead kick off the rocks behind the hole after jumping the water. But if we had more practice with the European balls and had used it on a few more holes, I think it would have helped us. If we are lucky enough to be selected for next year’s team and are able to go to Croatia, then we hope to practice more with the European equipment, although the Croatia course looks to have much shorter holes than Kosovo.

Q (specifically for Greg): You medaled at the WAGM and then you shot a perfect 18 at Putt Putt. Is this the best two weeks of your professional putting career? Where do you go from here?

GN: I would have to say as far as the time-frame that all this occurred that it is the best few weeks I’ve had in my career. The two things that match this would be winning the 2010 PPA National Championship and winning the 2009 USPMGA Masters. My goal every year is winning the PPA Nationals and winning the USPMGA Masters. Hopefully next year I can add trying to win the 2017 WAGM on the list.

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