OCEANPORT, N.J. — She looked like nothing out of the ordinary, just another platinum blonde in baggy shorts hanging out at the miniature golf course. But in the rarefied, close-knit, hypercompetitive world of professional miniature golf, Olivia Prokopova is nothing short of legendary.
"Olivia? There's no fear in her," said Rick Alessi, 57, a municipal heavy-equipment operator from Erie, Pa., who is to compete against her in the 2014 U.S. Open Miniature Golf Tournament that began here Friday. "She just loves the game."
There are many unusual things about Prokopova, beyond the fact that last year she swept the sport's three top competitions — the U.S. Open, the Masters and the world championships — for an unprecedented triple crown in miniature golf.
In a sport dominated by middle-aged American men, she is foreign, 19 years old, "and she's a gal," said John Forbes, the manager of the Bluegrass Miniature Golf Course, the elegantly landscaped spot, free of plastic clowns and windmills, where the tournament is to take place.
While few Americans have heard of any of the players, Prokopova is a celebrity back in her native Czech Republic. She has been the subject of a book and a documentary. She has corporate sponsors, her own website and her own line of light jackets.
With many tournaments awarding top prizes in the mid-three figures, no one is going to get rich playing miniature golf. Yet for Prokopova it is virtually a full-time endeavor. She practices for 8 to 12 hours a day, every day, except Wednesdays, when she does schoolwork from 3 to 8 p.m.
She is one of the few foreigners competing on the U.S. circuit and the only one, it appears, to travel with an entourage. It consists of one or both of her parents; sometimes her brother; and Ales Vlk, 39, an employee of her father's miniature golf course-building company back home, who functions as nutritionist, masseur, motivational coach, physical therapist and training partner.
In America, where many people think of miniature golf as something you might do after getting drunk and exhausting other entertainment options, being a world-class competitor might not seem like such a big deal. In truth, it is not hard to be a professional miniature golf player here: all you have to do is join the US ProMiniGolf Association, for $25.
"You can declare yourself a professional and pay the fee, so literally anyone can do it," said Brad Lebo, a 53-year-old dentist from Pennsylvania, who won the U.S. Open in 2010.
Similarly, among the many advantages for potential entrants to the U.S. Open, besides the $3,500 first-place prize, is that there is no need to qualify.
"You just pay your entry fee," said Carol Newman, the tournament director. Competitors in the top division pay $100. "We tell them what's going on and who's playing, and then they decide what they can handle."
About half the competitors at the Open, she said, are likely to be amateurs who live nearby in New Jersey and who just happen to enjoy playing. Some talented Bluegrass employees might compete, too. "Chris, who's blowing the course right now, shoots a 35, and it's a 40-par course," Newman said, pointing toward a young man using a leaf blower to blast debris off the course.
Professional miniature golf certainly suffers from a lack of respect. "I get a mixed bag of comments," said Lebo, who reckons he has won 105 tournaments in his career, for a total of about $9,000 in prize money. "People I play golf with are either intrigued, or they mock me hysterically."
Increasingly, competition-grade miniature golf courses differ from the kind of course that most Americans think of — fewer gnomes, dragons and pirates stalk the professional circuit than in the old days. Newer-built courses instead feature a series of AstroTurf putting greens that look sober and almost respectable. They are sculpted to be tricky, with variations in the elevation and pitch of the greens. That adds an extra degree of difficulty, making skill more important than luck.
Professional players should be able to sink their shots in either one or two strokes per hole. Players can gain an edge by mapping out, in their heads or on paper, exactly how to hit their second shot, depending on where the first shot falls. That is where Prokopova shines.
"She's not that much better than the others. She just practices more," said Bob Detwiler, president of the US ProMiniGolf Association.
There is another way to put that. "There's always an infinite amount of information to learn, and Olivia's work ethic is extremely good," said Lebo, interviewed as he tried to come to grips with the pesky sixth hole at Bluegrass. (He had put together an elaborate set of diagrams of every conceivable shot from every conceivable position at each hole that he planned to consult during the competition). "She sometimes goes to places seven weeks in advance and charts out the course, and that gives her a big advantage."
Even people devoted to the sport find this behavior extreme. "It's kind of amazing that these guys take this so seriously," Forbes said.
Curiously enough, miniature golf is not particularly popular in the Czech Republic, Prokopova said. But her string of international successes has turned her into a bona fide national superstar.
In an interview at the course, she and her team tried to explain just how famous she is.
"She has been on television, in the newspapers," Vlk said. "She has twice met the president of the Czech Republic; 17,000 people in a square applauded her."
Prokopova proved an elusive interviewee. She speaks only basic English, and a Russian interpreter had been provided so that Vlk, who speaks Czech and Russian, could relay the questions to her. But she tended to refer queries about things as simple as her height and her golfing philosophy to her father, Yan Prokop. That added another layer of complexity because the burly, chainsmoking Prokop, who spent much of the interview talking excitedly and banging messages into his two cellphones, speaks no English at all.
But a picture gradually emerged. Prokopova has been playing miniature golf since she was 3 years old, she said. Because there is so little money in it, she relies on fees from exhibitions and on corporate sponsors. "My mum and my dad must also give me money," she said.
She sometimes finds it lonely. "Because I play all the time, I haven't got many friends, but I like the players here — they are like my second family," she said. "I've been coming here since I was 7 years old, and I know everyone."
She trains so intensely that she has had operations on a wrist and on both knees. She would not reveal her training methods — "It's our secret, how we practice," she said — but did allow that she takes 14 vitamin and herbal supplements a day, and that "I have to eat light food before I play, or else I can't bend down and pick up the ball."
Prokopova was the picture of modesty. "I haven't got any talent; I just practice every day," she said.
Explaining her approach, she punched some words into Google Translate and then read aloud what appeared on her phone. "Diligence," she said.