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Centennial Games - July 2016

100 Years of Miniature Golf

Break out the candles. Recognized as born in Pinehurst, North Carolina, in June 1916, the game of miniature golf turns 100 this summer.

A Popular Science magazine article from 1919 describes that very first course, named “Thistle Dhu” (a wordplay on “this’ll do”): “It comprises 18 holes of which no two are alike,” the author wrote. “The first nine holes are divided from the second nine by a terraced garden, summer-house, flower bed, and iris garden.” Designed to force the player to study each shot, the course provided “a good test for the expert golfer as well as [teach] those new to the game.’ (To read the full Popular Science article, visit http://tinyurl.com/1stMiniGolf.)

“It was a dress-up affair,” says Adventure Golf Services’ Arne Lundmark about those early days. “People wore nice clothes to play.”

While mini-golf debuted in North Carolina, the game really took off in the New York City area, with many private courses appearing on rooftops and gardens, Lundmark says. The exclusivity didn’t last, though.

“Pretty soon everyone wanted to do it,” he says, “and all of a sudden, it expanded across the United States.”

Helping to aid the growth in the early ’20s came a change in the playing surface, says Amanda Kulkoski, producer/director of the documentary “Through the Windmill.” Owners now started to use turf instead of the tougher-to-maintain natural grass. Prohibition and the Great Depression further cemented mini-golf’s place in society, she says: “People couldn’t go to bars anymore, and they needed something to do. It was also a cheap form of entertainment.”

But not even mini-golf’s rapidly growing popularity could withstand World War II. With the country’s focus on wartime efforts, the ’40s became a relatively quiet period for the game.

Lundmark says after the war, mini-golf became an outlet for people looking to move forward; he dubs this period the “wacky ’50s and ’60s.” Mechanical elements like the iconic windmills were introduced to courses during this period, he says. Owners also started to add oversized creatures like dinosaurs and other large obstacles. Thanks to the founding of the Putt-Putt company in 1954 and its successful franchising model, mini-golf expanded to the suburbs during this era, as well, Lundmark says.

He describes the ’70s to ’90s as an uneven time for mini-golf, with growth as well as consolidation. More courses merged with driving ranges, the game turned into an family entertainment center staple, and starting in the ’80s, multilevel “adventure-style” courses became an important attraction in tourist centers, a niche that spawned many mini-golf design and development companies, including Lundmark’s. However, mismanagement, poor budgeting, and questionable location selection also forced many out of business during these decades, he says, but the turn of the millennium brought rejuvenation in the form of black-light courses and heavy theming.

Jim Papas has an easy answer on why mini-golf has endured—and thrived—for a century: “Everyone comes in happy, and everyone leaves happy.”

Papas and his brother, Greg, operate Whispering Pines Miniature Golf in Iron­dequoit, New York, is recognized as the oldest continuously operating mini-golf course in the country by the National Register of Historic Places (it opened in 1930). Over the years, they have upgraded the course, but the original structure of the holes has gone untouched—a welcome sight for many visitors.

“We recently had a 40-year anniversary party where the couple came here on their first date,” Papas reflects. “We hear all kinds of stories like that.”

The timelessness and universality of mini-golf has greatly contributed to its lasting power, says Chris Boznos, who along with his brother runs one of the oldest courses in the Chicago area, the 36-hole Par-King Skill Golf. “It’s a wholesome family game that can be played by anyone,” he says.

Beyond the broad appeal, the game creates a level playing field for all participants, Lundmark says: “A little kid can get a hole-in-one, while his mom or dad might take two or three strokes.”  

— Mike Bederka