A lot of people like to do something special for their birthday. I chose to spend my birthday weekend working with my buddy Matt “Mattie 5” Bellner, covering him on the Professional Putters Tour in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Why? Why not?
FRIDAY: The Road Never Starts
We decided Friday afternoon to make the trip to Fort Smith, a place neither of us have ever been and according to various maps, a place it’s fairly difficult to get to on purpose.
We initially decide to leave around four for the five-hour trip from Longview, Texas. The two trademarks of Mattie 5’s time on the Pro Putters Tour are spectacular attire and late arrivals, so we actually wind up leaving around 8:45 Friday night.
Welcome to Middle Of The Night, Arkansas
It’s not a bad trip for the first few hours, but somewhere near Texarkana we realize Mattie’s GPS is drunk. Instead of taking Highway 259 all the way as a straight shot up through Oklahoma, it veers us off to a series of smaller roads in Arkansas. We wind up driving through tiny towns, barely two lane roads, nameless intersections, and various people’s back yards. We get the feeling that the scenery around us is nice, but it’s two in the morning and we can’t see any of it. We’re basically looking for road signs and listening for banjo music the entire time.
About 2:30am we pull into the hotel on the outskirts of Fort Smith. We’re staying at a La Quinta, which is a Spanish phrase meaning “Next To Denny’s.”
When I get into a hotel room, I immediately want to do two things: Have sex, and turn down the air conditioner as low as it’ll go. It’s part of our male nature to procreate, and also to get the most out of our money. Since I’m alone, I settle for cranking down the AC and going out to find something to eat.
It’s 2:30am on a Saturday morning in Arkansas, so the only lights on the highway are from a Walmart. We duck in there to grab some kind of foodstuffs at an odd time, as the Fort Smith Walmart employees all take one simultaneous smoke break as we walk in the door.
Which means we’re in the quietest Walmart ever.
It’s like a Walmart in “Night of the Comet.” It seems to be completely abandoned, which is actually nice. There’s no disgruntled minimum wage employee rolling a pallet of potato chips behind us to block us into an aisle, no sullen neck-tattooed burnout in a vest pushing a buggy of broken merchandise in front of us, and then just leaving it there. Walmart should really think of that for a new marketing scheme.
“Walmart…more quiet, less nimrods.”
We wind up buying a couple of pre-made sandwiches and some drinks and heading back to the hotel. At about 3:20am, I take the ham and cheese sandwich out of the microwave, and discover it’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten in my life (Walmart category). Sure, it’s probably the exhaustion and starvation, but still I’m awed by the heavenly delight of a Walmart sandwich. It seems somewhat fitting that it happens in Arkansas.
I turn in for bed and get a couple of hours sleep before it’s time to get right back up again, late as usual, and get to work.
SATURDAY: Putt-Putting Right Along
For this weekend, I’m covering the Professional Putters Tour, which is playing at the Putt-Putt in Fort Smith.
Lights! Camera! Putting!
The Pro Putters Tour is probably something you might vaguely remember seeing on Saturday afternoons on television in the 70’s and 80’s. Putt-Putt was big in those days. Sure, there was a little bit of comedy and irony in it, but the tour was on television and there was big money at stake. Guys could win ten, fifteen grand by winning a single tournament stop.
Fast forward to now, and the PPA is made up primarily of those same guys who are still out there every weekend, driving themselves all over the neighboring states, paying for their own food and hotel rooms while trying to win pots of a hundred bucks or so.
It’s totally a love of the game thing, and if you’re expecting some cheap jokes at their expense, I’m not going to do it. I’m better than that.
Okay, I’m not really better than cheap jokes. I’ve made my career on them, really, but not here. I have a deep respect for these guys, and really anyone who does something like this out of a deep-seeded love. Whatever you did when you were 5-18 years old, you always have a love for it. Whether it’s comic books, slasher movies, baseball, Pokemon, or whatever, that’s always a part of you. I can totally understand not wanting to leave that behind.
These guys play together, drink together, bid against each other on eBay for vintage putters together, and just generally keep their childhood dreams alive. I can completely understand.
We roll out early to the Putt-Putt, which is a really nice 54-hole course. The State Championship starts with a three-round competition to narrow things down among the twenty people playing.
On Day One of the Putt Putt tour, we pause and eat at a nearby Subway. I decide to “Eat Fresh,” so I get a foot-long meatball sub with mayonnaise and cheese…but on wheat bread.
Day One ends with winner-take-all match play for the Arkansas State Championship. We get to see the seven-time Arkansas State Champion squaring off with a twenty-four year-old kid whose dad also won the title once back in the day.
For a minute, it’s big-time again. The whole tour is following these two guys around from hole to hole, guys are taking pictures, and there’s something big at stake. In the end the kid gets the trophy his dad once owned, and the former champ gets the Rocky III-“Eye Of The Tiger” drive to come back and win it back next year. Good stories all around.
After the day of Putt Putt and camerawork ends, we stop off at Outback for dinner. Due to exhaustion, starvation, and desperation, my Ribs on the Barbie quickly become the best meal I‘ve ever eaten (Non-Walmart category).
Back at the hotel, we get the gear ready for the next day and adjourn to our rooms. My wife calls, so I mute the TV and scan around for something to watch while we talk. After flipping by ESPN and Saturday Night Live, I stop on boxing.
Well, I think it’s boxing. I don’t follow the sport closely anymore, but I tune in as two Hispanic guys are beating the crap out of each other, so I figure I should stick around.
For a moment, I’m not sure exactly what I’m watching. There’s nothing else on the screen to indicate what this is, and I’ve got the volume off. I’m wondering if it’s FOX’s UFC coverage, or Showtime’s boxing after dark, or HBO’s fight night. Eventually, the round ends and the graphics pop up to indicate what’s going on. I don’t recognize the boxers, and I see that I’ve actually landed on one of the Spanish networks.
Disappointed, I change the channel.
And then I think, “Man, how racist am I?”
For some reason, I didn’t want to watch boxing on a channel in Spanish, even though I wasn’t actually listening to the broadcast. It was muted. But somehow, finding out the silence wasn’t being broadcast in English disappointed me enough to change the channel.
I felt fairly stupid, although certainly not enough to flip it back to the boxing.
Perhaps because of my disappointment but more likely because of my early descent into a meatball sub, I’m king-Hell sick Saturday night and I don’t sleep well.
SUNDAY: Oklahoma Comes To Arkansas
We get up early the next morning and hit the breakfast in the hotel, which is very similar to the leftover breakfast you’d get if you broke into someone’s summer house after they had already left to go to the beach. I grab some cereal and a piece of barely-singed toast and then we’re off.
Honest question, do you always take the hotel key card with you when you leave? I do. I don’t know why, maybe I just want to make sure I’m carrying the phone number of a local Dominos with me when I go. But I always do.
Sunday, we go back for Day Two of the tour. Same course, most of the same golfers, but this time it’s a stop on the Oklahoma Putters Tour. Yes, the Oklahoma state tour comes to Arkansas, which makes perfect sense if you know anything at all about either one of those states.
Blurry because I was shaky with excitement.
They play two different three-round tournaments on Sunday, which means I have a lot of time to stand around, apply sunscreen, and think about how very little cushion Converse sneakers provide you. It’s not really hot, but it’s definitely too hot to be standing around for two days lugging a camera and tripod around on the Arkansas asphalt.
One of the best things about hanging out on the Putt Putt circuit is the game rooms, which all are stocked to 80’s-90’s standards. Fort Smith had Gorf, Donkey Kong, and Galaga, with a “Peter Jacobsen’s Golden Tee” golf video game on the back wall.
I’ll confess, even though I’ve covered professional sports for television and radio for twenty-five years, I was a lot more excited to see “Gorf” than I was to see Peter Jacobsen.
Sunday was a long, trying day. At various points during our time there, my senses were assaulted by a guy who appeared to have shat himself, and the smell of a Long John Silver’s next door. It was a tie as to which was more breath-takingly disgusting.
Seriously, though, what the Hell is that smell? Long John Silvers has a blast radius of horror, and it’s filled with a smell unknown to man. A Burger King smells like burgers. A KFC smells like chicken. A Long John Silvers smells like a decaying deep-fried bucket of fuck. It’s not fish, nor is it chicken. It’s not a smell that occurs organically in nature.
We wrap things up around five, shake some hands, get some extra footage to use later, and head out of town.
This time though, we take 259 into and all the way through Oklahoma, driving on what appears to be a time machine. It’s nothing but forests and winding roads for most of it, pausing a few times to open up into tiny towns that time forgot. We see several locally owned businesses that have the word “Store” in the title, just so the local folks will know you can buy hardtack and flour there, I guess. There’s video rental stores still operating, and signs for national chains that use old logos we haven’t seen in a decade. I felt sure my debit card wouldn’t be accepted or even recognized at most of these stores.
Even the casinos there seem old. There’s a giant flashy sign out front for a “Cherokee Casino,” but the building itself looks like an old aircraft hangar. Oklahoma people are content to give away their money in rural settings, it seems.
Part of Oklahoma are so winding and hilly, my ears start to pop. It’s like going on a airplane trip at sixty miles an hour, surrounded by trees and areas that look like you could wander off into them and never be heard from again.
About halfway through our trip across the Eastern part of the state, we hit the Broken Bow/Beaver’s Bend tourist area where there are at least some people who’ve come to camp out and live at the lake for the holiday weekend. We stopped in Idabel (Population: 198, Town Motto: “What Are YOU Looking At?”) for gas just as a crowd of angry young bored slab-headed men stomped across the parking lot, coming up from their cabin in search of anything they could beat up or have sex with. Luckily, we fit into neither one of those categories, so they settled for walking across the road to a bar and grill of deep fried stuff and beer.
We decide it would be both safer and more hygienic to just keep driving, so we make it out of the state and back to Texas, where we dine like royalty at Ye Olde Dairy Queen in Omaha.
We finally check back into Longview around 11pm, and after unloading the gear I grab a shower at Mattie’s apartment to wash the sunscreen, sweat, and Arkansas off of me before I drive back to Tyler. I throw on a pair of old basketball shorts and a t-shirt to make the drive.
My birthday weekend ends with me taking a midnight drive home while not wearing underwear, but not for any good reason. That seems about right.
– Reid Kerr is actually looking forward to going through a box of old Putt-Putt DVD’s.