OLLIE HICKS always dreamed of representing New Zealand. Any sport, didn’t matter. He watched Michael Jones and Christian Cullen, Stacey Jones and Michael Campbell. He had played a decent standard of cricket and rugby as a kid. But now he was 28 years old, not in great shape, working a busy job, and living in Amsterdam, far from the national selectorial eye.

Then he saw a documentary in which Phil Keoghan, the New Zealander who hosts the television show The Amazing Race, somehow decided to hit a golf ball across Scotland while wearing a kilt. And slowly, he came up with an idea. Hicks would wear a black blazer with a silver fern. He would carry a New Zealand flag at an opening ceremony. And perform a haka at a closing ceremony. He would get a world ranking.

Ollie Hicks would play minigolf for New Zealand.

Windmills and clowns. Dinosaurs and plaster dwarves. Ice creams. Beach towns. Kids having meltdowns when they miss a shot. We have a shared collective memory of what minigolf means and it’s not course notes and coaches, world championships and anti-doping policies.

And yet competitive minigolf isn’t new and it isn’t that obscure. It’s big in Europe and it’s had a world championship for 27 years. We were just late to the party when Hicks found himself in a small lakeside city in southern Finland in 2015, learning that everything he thought he knew about minigolf was completely wrong.

The sport director for the World Minigolf Sport Federation, Pasi Aho, estimates there are 20,000 competitive players worldwide. In the 1960s and '70s, the sport was mainly concentrated in Germany, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland, but by the late '80s it had spread across most of mainland Europe. Aho himself - who would reach a world ranking in the 30s - took it up as a teenager in Finland, playing on a course next to his local ice rink. The federation is earnestly pursuing International Olympic Committee recognition as a real sport, but it’s still run by volunteers and the world’s best players are still playing for mere 500 Euro ($880) payouts. And, as Aho says, “there are so many new things youngsters can do, it is hard to get them to play minigolf competitively”.

But in New Zealand? Never been a thing. Until about three years ago.

For Hicks, watching the Keoghan documentary somehow begat the idea of running the length of the Netherlands - 10 marathons in 10 days - dressed in a morph suit. And this somehow begat the idea of forming a New Zealand minigolf team.

He discovered that the rights to form a New Zealand minigolf federation sat, dormant, with New Zealand Golf. He got as far as getting their blessing to form an organisation and exchanging paperwork with federation boss Dr Gerhard Zimmerman.

Then four years passed and Hicks found himself chatting to a couple of Kiwis - Chris Service and Henry Stock - in an Amsterdam bar. His opening gambit was to suggest they form a New Zealand minigolf team and go to the world championships. “The second thing I said was ‘do you want to be my friends? We’re all Kiwis living in Amsterdam’. I kinda did things the other way around.”

Hicks got some blazers made. He came up with a logo that he’s rather proud of - a pecking kiwi, its proboscis morphing into a putter. And he entered a full team (six men, three women) in the 2015 World Minigolf Championship in Lahtti, Finland.

The New Zealanders were welcomed with enthusiasm. “How shall I describe it?” says Aho, who was tournament director. “It was a great thing for everyone who was there to see a New Zealand team coming.”

For the Kiwis, it was a piss-up, wasn’t it? “Correct,” says Hicks. Yes, agrees Aho carefully. “It was for them seriously a big shock. They probably knew it was going to be different, but I don’t know what exactly they would have expected.”

Hicks bore the New Zealand flag in a parade through the city before it all began. His team brought half a dozen spectators, which was unusual, who drank and cheered, which was also unusual, set against competitive minigolf’s funereal silence. “We were basically the Cool Runnings of the event,” he says.

“Everyone loved us,” says Lucy Giesen, who also signed on to the team when she ran into Hicks in a bar. “No matter what, we had a smile on our face.”

The New Zealanders turned up two days before the start, bringing regular golf putters, and no golf balls - assuming they’d just be given a ball at the start.

First lesson: most serious minigolfers have their own carrybag full of balls of different sizes, weights and composition, often using a different one on each hole. Second: because some of those balls more closely resemble heavyweight squash balls than traditional golf balls, they use specialist rubber-faced putters. Third: they turn up a week early to thoroughly learn the course, practising eight hours a day and writing up course notes that plan their tee-off positions and what line they aim to hit the ball on.

Also, while we’re on the technical stuff, there are four types of minigolf surfaces. Three of them are played on in Europe - they look like tiny putting greens and don’t have obstacles and decorations. We have the fourth variety, which uses artificial turf and as many windmills as you like. Imagine only ever playing hardcourt tennis, then turning up at Wimbledon and realising it was played on grass.

The New Zealanders were loaned some clubs. Danish player Vincent Huus volunteered to coach them, and got his national teammates to donate a bag of balls. “It was a roaring success: we made the top 10,” says Hicks.

We should note here that there were 10 competing nations. New Zealand was last in the men’s and women’s team event; they occupied the bottom three places in the individual women’s event; and all their men were likewise placed in the last 10 ranking spots.

Hicks considers the event a personal triumph. He hit a dozen or so holes-in-one and came home with a trophy. He’s got it with him now: a small plastic cup, one arm broken (he dropped it in the car park on the way in to be interviewed). It’s the 2015 New Zealand Minigolf Champion Trophy. That’s odd, because there was no competitive minigolf in New Zealand back then (and how much the worse a place we were for that).

Ah. Turns out, with nine Kiwis in Finland, they decided to aggregate their daily scores and the best-performed over the four days would be crowned the first New Zealand champion. After the third day, Hicks was running second to Andrew McCarthy. Only McCarthy hadn’t realised the tournament was a four-day event, and he had to fly home to Switzerland for work. Hicks grins: “I played to the final whistle.”

The biggest lesson for the Kiwis, observing their rival teams with their official coaches, notebooks full of plans of how to play each hole and those bulging bags of balls was that minigolf was considered worthy of serious study in Europe. Says Giesen: “We said ‘why can’t we do this in New Zealand?’ ”

So far, so ironic. Now enter Bobby Hart.

A sports-obsessed former plasterer, Hart was first to organise futsal, a small-sided version of football, in his native west Auckland. But he wasn’t the first to do it in New Zealand and he dearly wanted to be a trailblazer.

“A lot of sports you get involved in now, you’re not involved from the start, you’re following the guidelines and the rules,” he explains. “You’re not shaping it, moulding it ... we can sit back at 70, and say look at minigolf now; we were the pioneers.”

Twelve months after their Finnish escapade, New Zealand minigolf’s key figures were still enjoying their OEs. So it was another expat team set to attend the World Adventure Golf Championships in Prishtina, Kosovo. Only now they had a Facebook page and a website. And Hart had seen the website. And he thought: “No f...ing way, someone beat me to it.”

Still, he got in touch, said he had experience of building a sport and wanted to help. Four months later, he was on his way to Kosovo to meet Hicks, Giesen and some of their London mates.

This time, Hicks had them practise a haka. And their own communal celebration for a hole-in-one, a staccato shout of ‘yeah boy’. It’s debatable, then, whether they were any better prepared than the previous outing.

Future Mini Black Matt Ansley, who didn’t go on that trip, has heard how it played out. “The guys from the UK were there for a party trip really… they had turned up for a laugh. Whereas Bobby was straight down the line. Still is.”

Hicks, more diplomatic, says: “Bobby was quite thorough and quite serious in his approach, and we picked up that he meant business. This was his passion, and he had come to do a job. We picked up on that, and we realised we were also there to do a job for our country.”

What is apparent is that Hart worked hard, very hard, and soaked up every tip and trick he could from the other nations. “The community is so good, they will show you everything, and say then we will beat you,” he says. “They don’t want to hide anything.” At the end of the tournament, he was New Zealand’s highest ranked player in the world, at 274, a fact that appears prominently on his LinkedIn biography.

By now, Hicks and Giesen were coming home. So they devised the inaugural New Zealand Minigolf Open.

Their combined marketing nous attracted three television crews, some Chiefs rugby players, and 46 entrants. An Australian, Allan Cox, who had been playing for 20 years, flew over to play and said it was the biggest turnout he’d ever seen at an event.

And there was a grandstand finish. “It was like Happy Gilmore (a golf movie that ends with a dramatic finale),” says Hicks, fondly. “We had a play-off for the men’s singles. Three TV crews on the 18th hole, about 60 people watching. It was unbelievable. The atmosphere was so tense.”

These were heady days. They ran a competition where the prize was a minigolf date with Bachelor Art Green (who just happens to be Giesen’s cousin) and his chosen date Matilda Rice at glamorous Sylvia Park minigolf.

Hicks’ part in the story ends a few months later. Work was busy. His wife was no fan of minigolf. She’d been to Kosovo with him. “She knows the life of a WAG. Found it quite boring at times, eight hours a day at a minigolf course in the sweltering heat. She was happy for me to pass the reins on.” Giesen too was moving on, to a new job in Sydney, where she set about getting an Australian federation formed. She’s still the Oceania representative on the World Minigolf Federation, a position she says her friends find endlessly hilarious.

But among those to turn up at those first nationals (won, as a footnote, by Jacques van Zyl) were John and Fay Ansley and their son, Matt. They’d played as a family when Matt was a kid. “It’s not something you want to do as you get older - but then when I heard there was a competition, I was straight in, it changed my mindset completely,” says Matt.

Ansley Jr knew about being competitive: his main hobby was competing in obstacle course racing, including the World’s Toughest Mudder, where competitors run continuous laps of an 8km course in the Nevada desert for 24 hours.

He brought the same determination to his minigolf - creating a rivalry that now dominates the domestic scene.

The best players in the country practise. A lot.

Most Fridays, the Ansleys make up a three-ball at the Lilliputt course on Tamaki Drive, gently sledging each other as they take two or three laps around the animatronic dinosaurs. “We don’t talk much when we’re playing,” says John, the reigning champion. “When Matt’s going bad I know, and he knows.”

Hart, meanwhile, plays mainly at the Enchanted Garden course in Onehunga. “It’s a good little course. This is where I trained for months on my own before Kosovo. Six hours a day, four days a week.” He holds the course record. Twice. 33 is the official best, 30 his unofficial mark - he was so excited, he left without getting his card signed.

Hart is hitting solo - his only company is the course owner, Darryl Prout - until his mate Matt Maguire turns up. Maguire trails a few holes behind, occasionally whooping out loud. He judges his opening round a blinder, and treats himself to a celebratory Rocky Road.

It’s an illustration of why they bother: the mix of schoolboy maths, nerve and repetition that delivers the perfect way to play a hole takes practice. In Maguire’s case, he’s finally aced the third hole for the first time. “I’ve been thinking about this hole, I hate to say it, when I am lying in bed, should be sleeping.”

He’s not staying as long as Hart; he has to take his 10-year-old son Ryan - the youngest player on the domestic circuit - to football practice. “There is life outside minigolf,” he says. The perspex window of the course office flies open, and Prout’s head emerges. “Where?” he bellows.

Hart studies minigolf. It’s led him to reject the standard way to putt. Instead, he drops his hips backwards, squats, then cradles his club gently in his hands, at an angle almost like an ice hockey goaltender. He says it lowers his centre of gravity and turns his putter into a pendulum.

He implies this might be one of the many lessons he learned from the Europeans. Hmmm, says Aho. “It’s rather unconventional. I am not saying it is not working, everyone has so many different ways ... hardly any one of the top players is using this playing technique. I would say Bobby’s technique is a very unusual one.”

Hart has a specialist rubber-faced putter. Matt Ansley has a $40 putter from Rebel Sport.

Hart has his own carry bag of balls, a rainbow of different sizes and weights. Ansley tends to use whatever ball he gets given at the course kiosk. This he does deliberately, he admits, because he knows it will annoy Hart if he beats him with any old ball.

Hart talks about setting up clubs at every course. About trying to persuade people to build competition-quality European-style courses. Starting a junior programme. Maybe getting on TV. “I’m going to send a message to [rich lister] Craig Heatley, and I want to talk to [billionaire] Graeme Hart. You’ve got to go where the money is, and they are both golfers.” He hopes he’s got a foot in the door with Hart - he did some of the plastering on his home renovations.

He sold sponsorships all over the Kiwi team shirt - to his garage, to his own minigolf business, which imports specialist clubs and balls, anticipating a minigolf revolution: “You want to be the original guy”.

Right now, Hart is under pressure.

The New Zealand domestic season is a long one. Stretching throughout the year, it loops around the North Island, one tournament a month. Last year, Matt Ansley won most events, but father John won the series through his consistency. Hart was third.

There are about 15 regulars. The big carrot is the top four get first refusal on a spot (self-funded) in the world championships team. Next year, it’s in China, where players are being promised free three-star accommodation at a brand-new resort course near Shanghai.

They’ve been gradually improving on the world stage. In 2017, they weren’t last; Lucy Giesen had also brought along a novice Australian team, so they were. And Kiwi Cam Couper did enough to catch the eye of Aho, who rated him potentially world-class.

“They’ve taken some big steps in a short time,” says Aho. “The road is still long, but they’ve taken the right approach.”

In 2018, the Ansleys joined Couper and Hart in the Czech Republic. Like those who had gone before, Matt Ansley was duly stunned by the steely focus of his opponents. He completed his anti-doping declaration; watched a Swede hold a towel over a teammate’s special glass ball so it didn’t burn the turf; heard stories of the Germans lying down beside a hole to form a human windbreak.

“We could climb the ladder quite quickly once we get a few more people up to speed,” says Couper.

He says the Brits have been going eight years, and they’re already on par.

Hart really, really wants to go back again. But he coaches a soccer team and fixture clashes kept him out of the first two tournaments of the season. For the third, in Hamilton, he went down a day early and practised eight hours solid. He won. It put him back into contention, but still a fair way behind. The next event will be crucial.

When we next return to the Secret Garden, it’s an unseasonably sunny winter’s Saturday and it’s noisy and busy. I’m taken aback. It seems as if round six of the ChroMax NZ Mini Golf Pro Open Championship has drawn an unusually big turnout.

Actually there are only 12 entrants. The others are all smiling, laughing families enjoying an afternoon out, unaware of the poker-faced national event playing out next to them.

A minigolf course can be lucrative business. It creates a unique tension - while a golf course owner is likely to have some love of golf, a minigolf owner is more likely to be an astute businessman with the $400,000 spare to build one.

Prout, however, runs the Enchanted Garden because it doesn’t feel like a real job and he likes making people happy. He never expected anyone taking it seriously. “I get thousands through here and only one per cent are slightly serious about it,” he says.  Could it take off as a sport? “Hmmm,” he says. “I think it will always be a niche. I think so.”

Why so few there? "It's a nice day, so..." says Matt Ansley, with a shrug and a look to the skies. Even Couper, the current president of NZ Mini Golf, isn't here: he's selling his car today and the bloke buying it could only turn up at 12 (a week or so later he will resign the presidency, citing lack of time).

But Hart is here, wearing his treasured Ghana Minigolf polo shirt (a swap he secured amid many competing offers at the last world champs), Barcelona FC football shirt, knee-length striped red, yellow and green socks and asymmetric pink and yellow trainers.

It's an ideal chance for him to climb the leaderboard, especially as Matt Ansley is crook - he's playing, but has withdrawn from the next day's North Shore Marathon and is speaking in a croak.

Hart is tense, but he's also encouraging the other players. On the tenth hole, overseen by an orange plaster dragon, Ansley's ball rolls around the hole, back out, and then down into a dip. Hart explains what happened to Matt Maguire. "Did he cry?" asks Maguire. "I would've," Hart replies.

But actually, today Ansley is having all the luck, and Hart none of it.

"You can tell when Bobby is going well, because he goes all quiet," Ansley confides. Hart is not being quiet. You can hear him three holes away. Defending national champ John Ansley isn't having a good day either, but he's taking it equably.

After one round, serious, quiet Murray Cramp, playing on his home course, has a two-shot lead on Matt. Matt congratulates him. "It's a long way to go," he says, "but thanks." Hart is a further five shots down.

They all break to record their scores on a whiteboard and fuel up. The Ansleys have a chillybin full of homemade sandwiches. Matt Maguire has a two-litre bottle of orange fizz and a takeaway pizza from Domino's across the road.

Hart is in a three-ball with James McCarthy and the always-enthusiastic Maguire. None are going well. "Alright, guys, let's sort this s... out," says McCarthy as they head out for round two.

But round two starts badly. "What's happening mate?" asks Maguire. "This ain't practice mate, that's what happening," says Hart. A couple of holes later he misses a putt. "It's all over, but that's alright," he says philosophically.

Matt Ansley then hits four aces inside five holes. "He's on!" shouts his playing partner, Sonny Natanielu.

The alluring smell of the barbecue at the Trident Tavern drifts over the back fence. The 16th is a nightmare hole, dropping sharply towards the whiff of frying steak. Hart's putt lips out on him and rolls away into the gutter. "You're joking," bellows Maguire.

Cramp hits a 34, Matt Ansley a 35. Cramp, stern-faced, almost immediately wants to start round three. "Every shot counts. The focus you need is incredible," he tells Matt. "I’m trying to really get in the zone. I know what it’s like now. It's flipping difficult."

It's getting colder now. Hart puts on his New Zealand minigolf rep's jacket for round three. I sidle off home. As Hicks’ wife would attest, there’s only so much minigolf you can watch. Afterwards, I hear that Cramp held his nerve, his place in the zone and the lead to win by two strokes from Matt Ansley; his first-ever tournament win. And Hart combusted, throwing his club and some F-bombs.

The next day, he posts a solemn statement on the federation’s Facebook page, resigning from the tour to pursue the lucrative World Masters of Putting series in Las Vegas: “look a Kiwi can fly”. Then he turns up anyway to the next event, and allegedly tells Cramp he’s going to wrap his putter around his head. He gets a warning letter from the federation.

Are they the pioneers? In 50 years time, will the names Hicks, Giesen, Hart and Ansley be in a Hall of Fame, the revered legends who brought minigolf to the masses? Or is it a niche occupied by those with skins thick enough to laugh off the mockery?

“You say ‘competitive minigolf’ and people laugh in your face. And we completely understand that,” says Matt Ansley. “Who would embarrass themselves enough to do that?”

“It’s a slow build,” says Giesen. “It’s changing people’s perspective that minigolf is just for kids, and that’s something that will take time.”

What they all agree on is that minigolf, done properly, is a serious pursuit. You need to be able to read the slope, calculate angles and rebounds, keep a cool head, stay focused. But it’s also entirely democratic when it comes to age, sex and size.

“It’s actually bloody hard to play four rounds of minigolf in one day,” declares Hicks. “It’s mentally hard, it is physically hard.”

But he’s got a sales pitch for anyone tempted. “You can potentially be New Zealand minigolf champion like me, be in the world top 500 like me, be president - like me.”

WORDS Steve Kilgallon
VISUALS Jason Dorday