VOL. 1  NO. 2  SEPTEMBER 1999



  Click for Miami, Florida Forecast   [The Miami Herald]   [www.miami.com]

No Ordinary Putt-Putt

If you're in Coconut Grove, Florida and you catch the red light at the urban intersection of Douglas Road and Grand Avenue, look closely at the stand of palmetto trees on the street side of the empty lot. At this corner, considered by many to be dangerous, you'll see the trappings of golf and signs of life in the cool shadows behind the neighborhood welcome sign. Your curiosity draws you in and you notice an array of hats on one tree, golf balls tucked into the spiky cut bark of another and golf clubs, lots of them. In the sparse grass there are numbered flags on sticks, spaced 12 feet apart. You hope the light doesn't change so you can figure this out. But the light will turn green and you'll move on because it's not your neighborhood.

What you missed was the "Rio Grande/General Douglas MacArthur" six hole mini-golf course created by Howard Johnson, a 57 year old man who sleeps in a room nearby, but spends up to 16 hours a day in the palm tree clubhouse. "I'm not working right now," he explains. He's a lanky man with scraggly dreadlocks and an easy "ha-ha-ha" laugh, who will welcome you and offer some shade and a little philosophy.

Johnson's vision began three years ago with the accidental discovery of two natural holes in the center of this scruffy lot, no larger than a tennis court. He describes his moment of inspiration through a mostly toothless smile. The annual Goombay celebration of Bahamian culture was in full swing and he was part of the crowd, hanging out and having fun. Someone rolled a golf ball across the rough ground and it rolled into one of the holes.

"Look at that. An easy putt," Johnson had said to the man. The ball was removed and rolled again, into another hole in the empty lot. "It rolled right in, 'cause of the slope, you know. Ha-ha-ha. You couldn't miss, so I got this idea for a small course."

[Image]People gave him equipment, just dropped it off. Hidden beneath his laundry are five bags of clubs. He pushes aside some old food containers, then rests his foot on a red and white cooler and says, "You know golf is a white man's game, but now there's Tiger." Tiger Woods is the inspiration for all this and Johnson has paid homage to him with faded photos and news articles, now ruined by rain, tacked onto a painted bulletin board on the adjoining wall of a vacant store. The words "Home of the Tiger" are carefully scratched on the board.

"I'd like to see the pros come here, if I fix it up." Fixing it up would mean some proper flag sticks, a load of dirt, a bag of rye grass seed and lots of prayer for rain, since there is no water source for the existing sprinklers. The property is owned by a group of black investors who since 1984 have yet to develop or renovate the area. No one seems to mind Johnson's presence. After all, he uses his push mower to keep the course groomed, free of charge. "This will raise the value of their property," says Johnson, hand on hip, as he adjusts his large faux tortoise shell sunglasses.

And speaking of charges, well, there are no greens fees for now. Johnson lets the neighborhood children play, if they want to learn. "But you know how kids are. They need to learn respect for each other and the game. They think it's a hockey stick. They keep me company and I try to teach them a few of the basics as I know them." Johnson explains that he wants the kids to look disciplined instead of just fooling around. "I'd like to work with them one on one."

As we talk he lines up a shot in the center of the course, the number three hole. "I'm not concerned with the long game." Indeed, anything more than a putt would be dangerous to passing cars and pedestrians. "Everyone's welcome and nobody will bother you here."

There's no need to reserve a tee time and a round won't take you all day, but you'll never forget this six hole, par "whatever" course, or its resident pro.

- Linda Z. Faber

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