AIKEN - With more than a quarter of a million dollars in career tournament winnings and wagers as a professional miniature golfer, Beech Island resident Bobby Ward isn't just playing around.
He golfs for both fun and profit.
For him, miniature golf is a quest to find the ideal approach to a hole, then execute the shot in as few strokes as possible - one, preferably.
Mr. Ward's nickname among players in the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association circuit is "the Professor."
Miniature golf pros don't like surprises, especially when entering a tournament, he explained in a recent practice outing. They study a course and learn all its secrets before official play.
"I like for (an opponent) to find the best shot available because then I have to beat him at the same shot," Mr. Ward said.
His methodical nature has made him a routine contender for prize money and top rankings.
Mr. Ward has won 12 major championships since beginning as a player in the putt-putt circuit at age 16. He has made $125,000 in official tournament prize money during his career.
The rest, he said, falls under the category of wagers.
It is competition more than money that keeps him on the road, participating in several tournaments throughout the year, he said.
Mr. Ward scored a 26, coming in third place, at last year's annual Masters National ProMiniGolf Championship at the Hawaiian Rumble in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Afterward, on a course at the same location, he became the first U.S. player to qualify for the next World Minigolf Championships, to be held in Germany in 2003.
It will be Mr. Ward's second invitation to play on the U.S. squad. He placed 65th in the world championships last year in Finland. The U.S. squad placed 12th.
Among the quirks of European miniature golf play, he said, were variations such as felt and slatelike surfaces rather than the more traditional turflike carpet.
"When you play in a world championship, there is no cash involved," Mr. Ward said. "I would be very surprised if it's not an Olympic sport by 2008.
Miniature golf has had a history of highs and lows in popularity in the United States, according to the U.S. ProMiniGolf Web site.
Mr. Ward said the game has become as popular overseas as bowling is in this country.
He lauded the game because people of all ages and races and both sexes can play.
"This is absolutely an addictive game," Mr. Ward said. "I enjoy it every bit as much at age 39 as I did at age 16."
Miniature golf almost got in the way of his other loves - his wife and family, but fate had a different plan Aug. 26, 1995.
"I was supposed to be at a putt-putt tournament but work made me stay in Augusta," said the machinist at Quebecor World printing company in Evans. "I went to a party here that night when I was supposed to be in Burlington, North Carolina."
That was the night he met Cathy, whom he married April 26, 1997.
"When I first met my wife and told her what I did, she thought it was silly," he said. "Then I popped in my videotape where I won $13,000. She didn't think it was so silly after that."
Mr. Ward has a 9-year-old son, Josh, from a previous marriage and a daughter, Jaycie, who is 4.
Mrs. Ward said being supportive of her husband does have its sacrifices.
"I miss him, and I miss his input around the house sometimes when he's gone," she said. "But it is something that he loves, and if he loves it, I love it, too. I'm going to support him the best I can."
Reach Eric Williamson at (803) 648-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.