June 22--HOPE MILLS -- Professional putters began a two-day competition here Saturday to mark the sport's 60th anniversary.
Putt-Putt began in Fayetteville on June 21, 1954, when Fayetteville insurance salesman Don Clayton built a course at the corner of Bragg Boulevard and Fort Bragg Road.
On Saturday, the Professional Putters Association opened a two-day Legends Diamond Jubilee Cup held at the Putt-Putt Fun Center in Hope Mills. Forty-six professional putters are seeking a $10,000 top prize.
For many pro putters, being in a tournament so close to Putt-Putt's birthplace evokes fond memories.
Greg Ward, 52, began playing Putt-Putt as a boy in Rocky Mount.
"I got hooked on it, and I've never stopped," said Ward, who turned Putt-Putt pro in 1982.
Now a salesman for a construction materials sales company who lives in Loganville, Georgia, Ward said the tournaments are a reunion of sorts for the players.
"We're all close, and we're from all over the country, so if it hadn't been for Putt-Putt, we probably wouldn't have met a lot of these guys," Ward said.
Like Ward, many of the professionals began playing on nearby courses as kids, eventually entering local competitions that led to bigger tournaments. Many worked at Putt-Putt centers when they were younger, and some own centers now.
"I've never had a real job," said Gary Hinshaw, who runs a Putt-Putt Fun Center in Richmond, Virginia. "I work at a place that sells fun."
Joe Aboid, the commissioner of the Professional Putters Association and national tournament director, owns a Putt-Putt center in Lynchburg, Virginia.
He said kicking off this year's national tour in Hope Mills was fitting.
"We wanted to come back to the birthplace of Putt-Putt," Aboid said.
While here, the association is giving back to the community in the form of a $5,000 donation to the CARE Clinic, which provides medical care to uninsured residents.
Two more tournaments will round out the national tour: a $10,000 event in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the $50,000 National Championship in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
For Robert Johnson, an architect from Lawrenceville, Georgia, one of the highlights of playing Putt-Putt professionally is "being able to be competitive at something at 62. There's not many sports where you can play with guys who are a lot younger than you are."
And the competition is fierce.
Former national champion Jay Klapper, of Lawrenceville, Georgia, led the the first half of the tournament with a score of 98 after 72 holes of play.
Bob Marcellino, a 63-year-old financial consultant from Louisville, Kentucky, has been putting since the 1960s.
For him, the sport is as much about playing against himself as his fellow putters.
"There's a perpetual challenge to do better than last time," he said.
Staff writer Paige Rentz can be reached at email@example.com or 486-2728.
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