A Quest for My Own Claret Jug

July 23, 2012

If you walk down Long Beach Boulevard during the day, you’ll find a middle-aged man wielding a broom running laps back and forth from his shotgun-shack bearing the sacred placard of the “Under 33 Club” to assorted patches of artificial grass surface, enforcing picture-perfect edges and hairpin breaks.

That middle-aged man is Kirk Van Keuren and if miniature golf had a major championship, it would be played here, on his hallowed course on the Jersey Shore.

Van Keuren, now 49, worked at Flamingo Golf as a high schooler and bought the course in 2000 from late founder Bill Burr. And just as legendary Augusta National has not changed in decades and mythical St. Andrews in centuries, Van Keuren has maintained the course’s look from the year of its founding, 1960.

“We’ve always kept it the same because we like what it is,” says the mustached Van Keuren, now a math teacher in South Jersey. “We’ve never changed it because we look at each hole and we like what we see.”

The capricious sea breezes still send the long birdie putts begging on seven. The bowling pins still line the fairways on eight. The green on 17 still mischievously runs right to left.

At all hours the course takes another shape, encouraging a different break or speed. On a summer’s morning the greens are slick with dew and run slower as water collects on dimples of the ball, the island yet to stir as vacationers glide out of bed. On a summer’s afternoon the sun beats down upon the grounds as footpaths on the greens are downtrodden by lethargic beach-goers. On a summer’s night the wind from Manahawkin Bay blows across the course east to the sea and the fairways run fast as the masses play a round with their children.

It’s the same majesty and history at Flamingo that keeps players coming back for serious golf outings—there are tournaments each Thursday—and family fun alike.

It’s the energy of Van Keuren and the late Burr that makes the “Under 33 Club” so elusive, putt-putt’s Claret Jug or Green Jacket.

Flamingo loyalist and television personality Ray Romano calls golf “tranquility and torture” at once. At no place is this more true than Flamingo. As children laugh and smile and bright pink balls with faces dot the landscape, the unattainable “Under 33 Club” seems nearly attainable.

But for a spot in that society, I will play on.

In early hours I’ll watch the night’s condensation seep on to the opaque pavement and hear the seagulls’ cries. I loosen up my arms and run-through ball striking.

In mid-day I’ll wipe the sweat of my brow on the brim of my cap as cars on the boulevard whizz by to my right. I take an aggressive approach on the front nine only to risk too much on the back nine.

And as the light fades I’ll kick back and play trick shots with my family, taking in the surroundings and thinking about the milkshake waiting for me at Woodies across the street. I am no longer in search of the milestone—32 strokes, eight under par.

But as I total my scorecard and Van Keuren takes my club, I discover my lazy 18 on the front nine and indolent 15 on the back nine total 33.

Bill Burr never knew why he named the course Flamingo. I have an idea—such pretty birds always fly away.


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