MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - It's a warmish spring day, and the sweat is beginning to bead on my forehead as I approach the first hole of the course that makes and breaks national miniature-golf champions.
The erupting volcano doesn't help my nerves, but a lot of luck and a little recent practice bring me two holes-in-one right off the, er, putter.
Wow, I think, this course is a breeze. I can do no wrong.
The rest of the game proved that I, in fact, had plenty of wrong in me. I don't recall the score, but it was bad.
So it goes at North Myrtle Beach's Hawaiian Rumble Golf, where the Masters National ProMiniGolf Championship is played each September and the U.S. Open is played each May.
As the Web site says (oh, if only I'd seen it before my trip), seemingly simple holes can prove infuriatingly difficult here at the self-proclaimed No. 1 U.S. mini-golf course.
Miniature golf is as inevitable a feature of popular vacation spots as chain restaurants and outlet malls. It's a reliable fallback when it's too cloudy for the beach, and it's a good pre- or post-dinner stretch after a day of sightseeing.
This is the place to come if you're semi-serious about your miniature golf, and even if it's the beach that draws you here, you should give miniature golf a shot.
"Myrtle Beach is the miniature-golf capital of the world," said Hawaiian Rumble owner Bob Detwiler, who is also president of the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association.
Players here can choose from nearly 50 courses in a 20-mile radius - a number unparalleled in the United States, he said.
That's partly because Myrtle Beach draws primarily families, Detwiler says - the ideal demographic for an activity that's equally suitable and entertaining for ages 4 to 104.
Myrtle Beach also is a mini-golf haven for the same reason it's a haven for players of regular golf: It's a pleasant - or at least bearable - place to be outside during most of the year.
Thus, when the ProMiniGolf Association formed three years ago, it formed in Myrtle Beach. The group, composed of 30 owners and 80 players, is the only U.S. association authorized to participate in world games and, eventually, the Olympics, Detwiler says. The International Olympics Committee accepted miniature golf as a provisional sport in 2000.
Mini-golf has been around since the 1920s, when it was played on real grass as a shortened form of traditional golf. Our modern, maze-like courses scrunched on tiny bits of land started cropping up during the Depression, originally adorned with obstacles such as old tires, barrels and rain gutters.
Nowadays, a drive down U.S. 17, the main drag from North Myrtle to Myrtle and points south, gives beach visitors a boatload of thematic choices. A mini-plane crashes every few minutes at Mayday Golf, and players can pan for gold at Sutter's Mill. There's a sunken ship at Treasure Island Golf and a ship that visitors play through at Spyglass.
And there's Hawaiian Rumble Golf, where the volcano is the least of a putter's worries.