Philly Mini Golf at Franklin Square (Photo: J. Holder for Historic Philadelphia)
Remembering your golf pro’s instructions, you crouch down behind the ball and read the green to visualize the ball’s path into the cup. You set your feet parallel to the line of putt, shoulder-width apart, with the ball in the middle in front of you. You imagine the cup as the center of a dartboard, take a few practice strokes, then raise your putter and swing through in a smooth, confident stroke, thwumping the ball toward victory.
The fact that you’re aiming to ring the Liberty Bell at Philly Mini Golf at Franklin Square or get the ball into Caramel Cow’s mouth so you can hear it moo at White Farms Homemade Ice Cream’s course in Ipswich, Massachusetts — not to mention that you’re playing on synthetic turf on top of concrete slabs — is beside the point. You still want to win, and thousands of miniature golf courses across the country are happy to make it a great outing for you and your family.
The windmill is a classic mini golf feature. (Photo: Mighty June/Flickr)
As funkadelic as many courses are, what with their homespun wooden windmills, and glow-in-the-dark clowns, the sport of miniature golf has a noble past. Back in the day, it was considered unseemly for women to raise clubs over their heads for a full swing that would propel the ball. Instead, the good folks at St. Andrews Links in Fife, Scotland, created the Ladies Putting Green (aka “The Himalayas”) in 1867. Today, it’s played by all ages, both sexes, and all nationalities — and the popularity of putting through a full 18 holes is replicated throughout the world, although the swales and mounds that give the course its nickname have been “enhanced” at family putting courses by anthill holes, obstacles, and animated figures.
In the U.S., the sport appeared at a private estate in 1919 called Thistle Dhu (“this’ll do”) in Pinehurst, North Carolina (the Pinehurst resort now has a course with the same name). It then took off in the 1920s on more than 100 New York City rooftops (could unaware pedestrians hear the “Fore!” at street level?) and onward into full-tilt craze mode in the 1930s, with tens of thousands of courses built nationwide.
You can play mini golf with coffins in the basement of a funeral home at Ahlgrim’s Acres. (Photo: Courtesy of Roadarch)
The range of difficulty, the breadth of theme, and the level of sophistication all vary significantly. In Palatine, Illinois, Ahlgrim’s Acres rests 20 feet below street level in the basement of a funeral home. Roger Ahlgrim designed it, beginning with a wooden windmill that was originally intended as an homage to his mother’s Dutch ancestry. As a new business in the ’60s, the course was a way to let families know about the new business; today, church and civic groups as well as families play the course, which includes a “cryptorium” designed by his daughter-in-law (there’s a penalty for sinking the ball into one of three open graves), a haunted house, and a guillotine.
The T.rex hole is a landmark in Ocean City, Maryland. (Photo: Anna Marlis Burgard for Islands of America)
I was raised on Old Pro Golf’s Prehistoric Dinosaur & Undersea Adventure Mini Golf in Ocean City, Maryland, whose giant T. rex still attracts throngs of sunburned, wave-weary families. In my travels for Islands of America: A River, Lake and Sea Odyssey, I’ve visited 76 islands across the U.S., many of which have mini golf courses. There’s a nine-hole course on sandy soil that uses recycled tuna cans as the cups and Douglas fir roots as the obstacles on tiny Eightmile Island in Priest Lake, Idaho. (Bring your own putter and ball.) There’s the angler-inspired The Fish Hole at Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island, Florida. And Governors Island in New York hosts annual courses designed by Figment’s participatory art group. This year, there’s a “New York City Now” theme with an Original Ray’s pizza hole.
There are clever courses throughout America, such as the third-generation Par-King Skill Golf in Lincolnshire, Illinois, with its elevator-lifted balls, rocket ship, and roller coaster holes. Perils of the Lost Jungle, in Herndon, Virginia, features an animated gorilla, an alligator charging out of a pond, and smoke machines, with the soundtrack to Indiana Jones playing as you explore. Around the World Golf in Lake George, New York, was inspired by Harry Horn’s memories and souvenirs from his world travels with a pilot friend; his experiences have let the rest of us have fun for 50 years and counting, playing around the Taj Mahal, a rickshaw, and a giant beer stein.
Glow-in-the dark clowns just one of the many impressive holes at Monster Mini Golf. (Photo: Haveboard/Flickr)
The Monster Mini Golf chain in numerous locations illuminates players with blue light in theatrical, high-tech, glow-in-the dark environments filled with aliens, evil clowns, and monsters. Gatlinburg, Tennessee, has Ripley’s Davy Crockett Mini-Golf, complete with a bear-riding Crockett, hillbilly shacks, and clothes out on the line. For churchgoers, there’s the mini golf at the Lexington Ice Center in Lexington, Kentucky, with its Old Testament, New Testament, and Miracles courses. The list goes on, but the center of the mini golf universe is Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with scores of courses in the area, including Hawaiian Rumble Mini Golf with its beautifully landscaped grounds, tiki huts, and fire-spewing volcano. (With about 500,000 guests each year, you know they did it right!)
Hawaiian Rumble Mini Golf completes its Polynesian theme with a fire-spewing volcano to (Photo: Hawaiian Rumble Mini Golf )
At Ripley’s Davy Crockett Mini Golf you can activate the Country Critter band at the 18th hole if you win a free round. (Photo credit: Charlie Brooks)
While it’s all fun and games for most of us (stymied as we may be by some tricky holes), miniature golf is big business with formal associations, big league design firms, tournaments with significant cash prizes for the mini pros, and websites such as the Putting Penguin that are devoted to critiquing courses. But even if you’re just looking for that rare activity the entire family can do together, arranging a low-key first date, or looking to put your kinetic skills to the test, miniature golf offers something for enthusiasts of all strokes.
WATCH: This Guy is a Mini Golf Champion:
Anna Marlis Burgard’s work has been featured on BBC Radio and NPR and in The New Yorker, O Magazine and Town & Country. She’s visited 76 (and counting) of the 16,986 named islands in the United States for Islands of America: A River, Lake and Sea Odyssey.