He’s Got (Short) Game
In the winter of 2002, after a dozen years of loyalty, Brad Lebo C’83 D’90 decided to abandon his Titleist Light Blade putter. Another club with a bigger sweet spot had come to his attention, and Lebo had to have it. There was just one problem with the comparatively newfangled Carbite B-One model. The manufacturer had just stopped producing it.
“So I had a buddy go on eBay,” he recalls. “He got me eight more of them. I really liked this putter, and I was afraid that I’d never find it again.” As a professional putting champion with 21 tour victories under his belt, that was one fear Lebo could do without.
After having his stroke analyzed by a specialist and fine-tuning each putter to match his personal specifications, Lebo, who earns most of his income as a dentist in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, saw his putting career explode. Over the last three years he has won more tournaments than he did in the previous 12, pushing his victory total to 48 and pulling in more than $80,000 in career prize money. First place is rarely worth more than a few hundred dollars on the Professional Putters Association (PPA) circuit, and “our galleries aren’t in the hundreds of thousands, that’s for sure,” but Lebo routinely travels to states as distant as Florida and Texas to compete. While PPA members play only on the standardized courses built by Putt-Putt Golf Courses of America, there are more than 275 of those around the world, and between March and October, when the season is in swing, Lebo rarely spends a weekend at home.
“As I’ve gotten further in my dental career, I have a lot of autonomy over my schedule,” he says. “I do 42 hours in the office between Monday and Wednesday during the summer, and then I’m on the road Wednesday night.”
That gives him a day or two to practice before each event, which is important for a man who makes his home more than a hundred miles away from the nearest Putt-Putt. It also gives him the opportunity to scout the course, which turns out to be substantially more complicated than an amateur might suspect.
Putt-Putt Golf Courses of America is the brainchild of a North Carolina native named Don Clayton, and the business he started in the 1950s did for recreational putting what McDonald’s did for hamburgers. Though its franchises are scattered from Wyoming to Jakarta to Beirut, the Putt-Putt universe is limited to 132 hole designs that are reproduced identically throughout the chain. But what separates the champions from the also-rans, Lebo says, is the ability to recognize that the apparent homogeneity is an illusion. Decades of weather exposure will do one thing to a carpeted green in arid New Mexico, and something else entirely to the same turf in humid Georgia. The poured concrete underneath will settle and sag in unpredictable ways. Some players believe the temperature of an aluminum rail can influence the way a golf ball ricochets, potentially necessitating one approach in the cool morning and another in the afternoon heat.
“You can have the same physical hole, but it will play very differently because of the lie of the land and/or the grain of the carpet,” says Lebo, who typically uses a white Titleist Pro V1 golf ball but switches to a Nike Super-Soft Power Distance when he needs a little less kick on bank shots. “So you couldn’t play the hole the exact same way from location to location.”
It was a chance outing to a Putt-Putt in the Philadelphia suburbs in 1988, during his dental training, that first got Lebo hooked. He’d been on the Penn golf team as an undergrad, but the long ball had never been his strong suit. When he came across the weekly putting tournament in Clifton Heights, he figured it was the perfect competitive outlet for a busy dental student with a serious short game.
“It was something I thought I’d be really good at, right away. But I tried to play the next week and found out it was a totally different beast,” Lebo remembers. “Then some people who were regularspretty good local playersstarted teaching me about the nuances of the game.”
Four years later he won his first PPA event in Newport News, Virginia. By 1997, the year he clinched his first state championship and appeared on ESPN’s broadcast of the Putt-Putt Skins game, Lebo had a reputation as a tight player who made few mistakes. In a sport where par is always two strokes, the worst personal disaster he can recall is a six. Some players have far more spectacular meltdowns.
“Once, I played with somebody who had a 12 on a course in Charlottesville,” says Lebo. “It was kind of a side-hole hill, and if you missed your deuce putt, you just ended up having to hit the same putt again, and I think frustration took over. I had less than 12 on that same nine holes.”
In 2006 Lebo’s talent for meticulous preparation and coolheaded execution paid off in the form of an accomplishment unique in the annals of competitive putting. On July 7 he finished the eighth and final round of the PPA National Championship at 90 under par to win the organization’s flagship tournament. Two months earlier he had pulled off a surprise victory in the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association’s U.S. Open. The USPMGA, effectively the PPA’s rival tour, conducts its events on one-of-a-kind “adventure courses” such as the Hawaiian Rumble in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, which features a 40-foot-tall concrete volcano that belches real fire. No one had ever won both tours’ top events in a single year. By uniting the title, as it were, Lebo became the closest thing the American putting world has to an undisputed champion.
Sixteen years after going pro, Lebo has achieved his initial goal but isn’t quite ready to hang up his sneakers. “It’s kind of an ageless sport,” he says. “When you’re out there, you don’t realize you’re becoming friends with somebody who could be 20 years older than you, or 20 years younger. And just like any other specialty, you could sit there for 24 straight hours and do nothing but talk about the intricacies of the game.”
Plus, there’s always the possibility that miniature golf could regain the sponsorships and hefty purses of its bygone glory days. In 1973 the PPA World Championship victor took home $50,000$5,000 more than Jack Nicklaus got for winning that year’s PGA Championship.
Nevertheless, the dentist is well aware that his summers of being a solitary weekend journeyman depend on more than the indulgence of his clinical staff. “I’ve kind of promised my wife that I’ll stop competing if I ever feel like I can’t legitimately win the national championship,” Lebo says.
If that pledge comforts Kathy Lebo, another fact may give her further reassurance: In the arena of American miniature golf, there is no Seniors Tour. T.P.
Atlanta’s civic savior Shirley Franklin G’69 Hon’07
©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 06/28/07