Ocean City -- This is how you know your career has flat-lined. On a steamy Eastern Shore morning, you find yourself with a notebook in one hand and a cheap putter in the other leaning into a giant ceramic frog's mouth as a Tidy Bowl-blue waterfall cascades in the background.
The entire ordeal begins when an editor marches up to your desk and fixes you with this eerie, Stepford Wives smile and says: "We'd like you to do a story on miniature golf.
"Go down to Ocean City," she continues as you mentally retrieve your resume from the word processor. "They have lots of miniature golf places. You could rate each one."
So you come to this ageless seaside resort town, where it's 93 degrees and the only breeze is from the doors at the Dip N' Donuts opening and closing on all the fat people.
And you play all 14 miniature golf courses. In one day.
With your 12-year-old son as a partner, you start at 9 in the morning not far from the Delaware line and finish almost 13 hours later at the inlet, with throbbing legs and a Chernobyl sunburn and some frat boy leaning against your car with his 32-ounce Bud draft, puking his guts out.
And now you hate miniature golf.
God, do you hate it! You hate it so bad that if someone even mentions the game, you have to leave the room so they don't see your hands shake.
But the bottom line is: You got the story.
Oh, it was hell. After a while, Coastal Highway became a blur of all-U-can-eat seafood joints, T-shirt stores and dopey-named bars with dueling happy hour marquees.
The mini-golf courses all run together, too: windmills and dinosaurs and rum-swilling buccaneers, flat courses, hilly courses, courses with volcanoes that look like miniature Krakatoas, only without the 3-foot blanket of ash.
But you played them all. You played until your hands had blisters the size of manhole covers.
Because updating a resume takes time.
Here's a look at the courses, with five putters being our top rating:
OLD PRO GOLF
Themes: Pirate, Polynesian, Safari.
Comments: Sure, we could have started with Viking Golf or Golf Down Under as the northernmost course. But they're technically in Fenwick, which is technically in Delaware, which is technically not even a state. Or at least it shouldn't be.
Here, we played the intricate Pirate course, which wraps around a square-rigged galleon Barracuda. The greens are smooth, the holes have cool names (Blackbeard's Cave, Bloody Dagger Tavern) and are tricked up with all sorts of moving obstacles.
Best hole: 7th. Blackbeard's Cave is the size of a broom closet, only without the mop and Pine Sol. But kids love to putt in semi-darkness.
Glaring thematic glitch: 11th hole, inside Barracuda, is decorated with typical pirate gear: fishing nets, weapons chest and plastic trash can, apparently picked up by tidy buccaneers at Sears.
GOLD RUSH TERRIOTORY
Theme: Heavy Old West. I felt like tossing a silver coin at the man handing out clubs and saying: "Whiskey, barkeep. Leave the bottle."
Comments: Despite an ominous sign at the first tee ("Anyone using clubs for reasons other than golf will be asked to leave -- no refunds!"), this was a pleasant, if uninspired, course. The Astro Turf (or whatever that stuff is) was the thickest of any course we played, necessitating that you either a) whack the ball real hard or b) develop a steroid habit in months preceding your visit.
Best hole: 14th. Tee off in front of the wigwam, with a steep incline down to the green. A routine shot only if you regularly play north face of Pikes Peak.
Glaring thematic glitch: Cross-armed Indian at 15th hole is over 17 feet tall.
OLD PRO GOLF
Themes: Dinosaur, Undersea Adventure.
Comments: Our personal favorite. OC's best-known course, with its trademark snarling tyrannosaurus rex and brooding brontosaurus overlooking Coastal Highway. Manager Rick Schoellkopf says people actually gather at dusk, Deadhead-style, to watch the lighting of the flame-shooting volcano. Some folks are even sober.
Determined to bring on heat stroke, we played the popular outdoor Dinosaur course, which has pool table-smooth greens, tricky holes and Jurassic Park-ish effect on kids. Harried parents can warn toddlers: "Knock it off or that triceratops will eat you."
Best hole: 8th, under brontosaurus' legs, which is directly
adjacent to Coastal Highway; enormous concentration is required to putt as you're abused by passing motorists.
Glaring thematic glitch: Stegosaurus at the 11th appears to be wearing a sandwich board announcing: "$1 Red Dog, $1 shots. No cover til 10." Closer inspection reveals it's a sign at the Hurricane Nite Club next door.
Theme: Hawaiian island tour.
Comments: At the risk of lapsing into Hollywood-speak, the visuals here are cool: waterfalls, Easter Island statues, a broken-down Jeep with surfboard attached to top, etc. But pin placements are unchallenging, which probably explains my hole-in-one on 12th.
Best hole: 11th. Dogleg left next to a Jaws-like great white shark leaping out of lagoon.
Glaring thematic glitch: Pristine, tropical paradise effect at the entrance ("Welcome to Maui. The Valley Island'") is marred by a Pepsi machine.
PARADISE COVE GOLF
Theme: South Sea, Gilligan's Island-like setting.
Comments: Another panoramic, easy course. Not the place to be if you're on the verge of a breakdown -- the noise can be startling from Tank Course at a nearby kiddie park, where budding Norman Schwarzkopfs climb into Desert Storm-ish mini-Humvees and shoot plastic artillery at each other. Ducks congregating at the 13th hole are a surly bunch; a thuggish mallard refused to move, costing me a penalty stroke.
Best hole: 15th. Climb to the top of a waterfall, tee off under Bridge Over the River Kwai-ish wooden tower. The ball navigates a series of tubes to a green 40 feet down the incline.
Glaring thematic glitch: Half-submerged SS Minnow in the lagoon looks more like a rowboat.
PARADISE COVE GOLF
Theme: South Sea isle.
Comments: A smaller, more contained course but with some interesting long holes. Holes 14-17 are the steep, uphill portion of course, which is like climbing Kilimanjaro in summer heat. But on the day of our visit, the Convention Center next door was the site of a firemen's gathering, so we figured someone there knew CPR.
Best hole: 7th. A tricky 20-foot putt between two miniature lava-spewing craters.
Glaring thematic glitch: Tranquil, morning-in-Tahiti mood shattered by a Metallica disciple with a nose ring who leaned over fence and shouted: "Hey, man, you got a cigarette?"
JOLLY ROGER AMUSEMENT PARK
Theme: Jungle, Treasure.
Comments: A great course, our second favorite. With two beers in you, the bugs swarming and the sun beating down, you'd swear you were in Kenya. Or trapped in a Dumpster. The first hole, next to the giant giraffes, requires a nifty, 180-degree putt, and the course stays challenging to the end.
Best hole: 17th. From the highest point on the course, you're looking at a 60-foot, downhill, dogleg right putt. Say your prayers.
Glaring thematic glitch: Safari-ish atmosphere ruined by a flashback as the speaker system pipes the horrid Strawberry Alarm Clock tune "Incense and Peppermints."
OLD PRO GOLF
Theme: White Castle, Circus.
Comments: Our third favorite. Knights of the Round Table-ish setting has long holes and the most impressive array of weaponry (battle axes, rock launchers, impalement gates, etc.) outside of G. Gordon Liddy's basement.
Best hole: 8th. A 30-foot putt under an iron gate guarded by a silver knight. He's not in a good mood. Neither will you be after this.
Glaring thematic glitch: Stuck to a castle rampart was a flier from Subway sandwich shop advertising "Breakfast 6-11." Hey, who doesn't start the day with an Italian cold cut sub dripping with mayo, oil and vinegar?
OLD PRO GOLF
Theme: Polynesian village.
Comments: Small, predictable, ho-hum course. There should be a miniature golf dictum that states: You see one Polynesian village course, you've seen 'em all.
Best hole: 14th, Jeffrey Dahmer-ish setting surrounded by spears with skulls atop them.
Glaring thematic glitch: Entrance features "Lucky Wishing Well" generally not associated with the culture of central Pacific archipelagoes.
PARADISE COVE GOLF
Theme: South Sea isle.
Comments: Zzzzz. Waterfalls, rock formations, native huts, yeah, yeah, yeah. Been there, done that.
Best hole: 14th. Climbs uphill to a cascading waterfall where, if the breeze is blowing right, you feel a cooling spray of Peter Max-ish blue water.
Glaring thematic glitch: Location next to Holy Savior Roman Catholic Church adds an eerie native-islanders-playing-bingo touch to course. Then again, you could pop in and say a novena if your game is going bad.
Theme: You tell me. Holes are decorated with such disparate objects as a sailboat, tiny gingerbread house, seal balancing a ball, stone wall with owl and pussycat, etc.
Comments: A tiny course with cookie-cutter pin placements that looks like it's been around a while. But for two bucks, what do you want?
Best hole: 18th. Nothing tricky, but it's next to the bus stop. If you're bored, watch the old-timers in Bermuda shorts, black socks and varicose veins the size of culvert pipes.
A5 Glaring thematic glitch: Tell me the theme first.
Theme: Some sort of Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Tarzan thing. White rabbits, giant toadstools, gorillas, rhinos, zebras -- what's the frequency, Kenneth?
Comments: Nice-guy owner Jim Miles calls it "an old-fashioned flat course, dogleg right, dogleg left," but it's still fun to play, with several holes negotiated only by narrow one-foot strips.
Best hole: 17th. Through the rhino's legs, around a totem pole, then down a winding 15-foot drop. If real golf clubs had holes like this, they'd triple their membership in a year.
Glaring thematic glitch: Inexplicably rising from the gloaming in the middle of the course is . . . Porky Pig.
ICE LAND GOLF
Philadelphia Avenue, three blocks south of Route 50 bridge.
Theme: North Pole/Eskimo life.
Comments: Interesting course with neat visuals: igloos, hollowed out glaciers, angry-looking grizzlies snatching salmon from the water, etc. Maybe it was all in my head, but I even felt cooler.
1% Best hole: 10th. Putt the ball in
side an igloo, where it goes into a tube that then shoots it out of the igloo (stay with me here) and toward the hole.
Glaring thematic inaccuracy: Smiling polar bear on sign smacks of anthropomorphism.
TRIMPER'S OLDE TOWNE GOLF
Baltimore Avenue and S. Division Street.
Theme: Country rock garden.
Comments: Another old-fashioned layout, but more hilly than Sunburst or Bamboo and no snap to play. Easily holds the distinction of having more warning signs ("Please Do Not Bang Golf Clubs Against Bricks," "Hit Ball Easy -- Please!") than any other OC course.
Best hole: 13th. Miniature windmill actually has sign warning: "Watch your head for turning blades." Look, anyone stupid enough to get whacked on the head by a tiny blade turning at 2 mph deserves to be beheaded.
Glaring thematic glitch: Sign at 15th hole "Do Not Jump!" more appropriate for Lover's Leap than a rock garden with average elevation of 14 inches.
$ Rating: Three clubs.