It’s been more than half a century since Paula Moore Gay’s father died, but her lingering tribute to him lives on and continues to take her further than she’s ever gone before.
Gay was only 7 when her father, Tracy Moore, passed away at the age of 33. Moore died only a month before he was hoping to defend his 1965 Professional Putters Association national championship, which he won in Indianapolis six months after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
“If I don’t win it now, I may never have another chance,” Moore told his final round playing partner Charlie Connor before acing two of the last three holes to win by one stroke over fellow Augustan Ralph Sapp and Herman Strickland of Macon.
It wasn’t until she was 13 that Gay decided she wanted to pursue competing in mini golf to honor her father.
“I fell in love with it,” said Gay, who would win the 1981 Ladies PPA national title in Charlotte, N.C., when she was 23.
Tracy Moore brought miniature golf to Augusta when he built and owned the now fallow Putt-Putt franchise on Gordon Highway. Gay inherited her father’s enthusiasm for the game as well as his determination.
At age 59, she still competes professionally in a sport that has expanded far beyond its familiar orange-and-green Putt-Putt roots. On Sept. 11-12, she will be the only female member of the eight-person Team USA competing in the World Adventure Golf Masters at the Zaton Holiday Resort on the Adriatic Sea in Croatia.
“I am so excited to be only the second woman to compete for Team USA,” said Gay, who follows Astra Stanwyck as females on national teams. “It will be my first time out of the country, other than some cruises.”
She’s making the most of the opportunity by leaving 10 days early to both practice on the resort’s adventure golf course but experience one of Europe’s most beautiful countries.
Gay’s knack for mini golf has stuck with her even after setting competition aside for years as she raised her two sons. But the certified massage therapist and esthetician got back into the sport when the national PPA championship came to Augusta in 2002.
Now she competes in about a half dozen tournaments a year and consistently finishes first, second or third in U.S. ProMiniGolf Association events. That consistency is what earned her a place on the national team with seven men, including two who have produced perfect scores of 18 in the past.
Gay’s career best score is 21. While she wouldn’t be able to challenge Georgia Golf Hall of Famer Laura Coble in any club championships on a regulation course, it would be a different story at the Putt-Putt in Martinez.
“I could beat her there,” Gay said with a laugh.
Mini golf has changed from its earliest roots 101 years ago in Pinehurst, N.C., and Putt-Putt’s origins in nearby Fayetteville, N.C. Gay once competed in the nationally televised PPA show on traditional Putt-Putt courses. Now she competes on “adventure” courses that go beyond the universal par-2 holes encased in metal borders.
But the skill remains the same and Gay still has what it takes to win titles – particularly when she has the time to learn the nuances of the host courses. She won the Masters of Mini Golf women’s division in 2014 and the U.S. Open in 2015. She practices as much as she can between working and being a grandmother.
The United States is one of 18 countries in the team competition in Croatia and is sending two four-person teams. Gay will also be one of six women competing in the senior division, facing players from Russia, Austria, Switzerland, Slovakia and the Netherlands.
“I am hoping to bring home a medal in the senior women’s division and help out Team USA with as many under-par rounds as I can,” she said.
She also hopes motivate others.
“Hopefully we can get more women get involved in mini golf,” she said. “We can compete just as well as the men with practice, patience and perseverance.”
However it turns out, Gay believes the experience of seeing another part of the world will be worth it. And her father – who was inducted into the Professional Putters Association hall of fame in 1999 – would surely be impressed with the way his daughter picked up where he left off too soon.
“I think he would be very proud of me continuing his legacy in a sport that he loved so much,” she said.