By Jonathan Haeber
There are places that demand a spot in our childhood milieu. Among these places are county fairs and city swings, Disneyland, tree houses, and that divine spot under the Christmas tree. But, to my 10-year-old self, the miniature golf course was nothing short of a dream world– the manifestation of all the great movies and adventurous ruminations that I’d experienced up to that point. The miniature golf course was magic incarnate, a setting in the landscape that allowed for an infinite amount of imagination.
In a sense, miniature golf is as artistic as the Louvre, Stonehenge, and the numerous statues, buildings, and monuments that tower over the Lilliputian greens. Like art, the design of a course changes in the realm of time, and attracts the people of its age. Like cinema, miniature golf is a variant of art for the masses. It is the greatest unknown art of the American landscape and its artists are the capitalistic craftsmen that satiated the lower and middle class of their appetite for culture. In support of such a claim, the various ages of miniature golf course design below will be corresponded with periods and figures in traditional art.
Romantic Era Emergence (REE) (1867-1916)
What is “essentially the oldest miniature golf course” is the Ladies’ Putting Club in St. Andrews, Scotland (Carlson). It was formed in 1867, and has a limited membership. Its highlight is the Himalayas, an 18-hole putting green. The club was initially for practical purposes since it was then “considered unacceptable for women to take the club back past their shoulder” (Emory 42). Though the purpose of the course was once for women, who comprise the majority of the membership, it is known as one of the most prestigious greens on the British Isles, and has been played by Ben Crenshaw, Peter Jacobsen, Tom Watson, Craig Stadler and George Bush Sr (Emory 44).
The early miniature courses, including the Himalayas, were one of three types: the pitch and putt, the regulation par-3, and the executive course (Gaylor 3). At that time, games of miniature golf involved the use of two clubs: the putter and a short driver. Courses were usually from 50 to 100 yards (“London” 16). They retained the architectural plans and landscaping techniques of the regulation course, with undulating hills, verdant forests, sand traps, and ponds (See Appendix A).
These early courses imitated nature in all aspects. They reflected the Romantic era paintings of John Constable, one of the most famous British Landscape artists of his time (See Appendix B).
Notice the curvilinear roads and random setting of the greens in appendix A. This was the typical American miniature golf course of the early 20th century. Most were located at hotels and resorts, and therefore were not yet available to the masses. The only artificial aspect of the REE course was the ubiquitous clubhouse. The clubhouse is the shrine and axis mundi of the mini-golf course, and it has remained as a common element of the course, even in contemporary times.
Post-Romantic Classicism (PRC) (1916-1926)
Following the First World War, Americans viewed industry much differently. Concurrently, the ‘city efficient movement’ was at its apogee. City planning was in full swing, and– it seemed– traditional classicism was returning, even on the miniature golf course.
In 1916, James Barber of Pinehurst, North Carolina, designed Thistle Dhu, the first quintessential miniature golf course. Word has it, that after having seen his finished course, Barber declared to his designer “This’ll do!” and an American icon was born (Margolies 14). The plan of Barber’s Thistle Dhu was as much Classical as the Par-3 was Romantic. The plan resembles the preeminent source of neo-classical landscape design, the Tuileries Garden at the Louvre. Geometric shapes are coupled with symmetric walkways, fountains, and planters (see appendix C).
DaVinci’s anatomical drawings closely resemble the anatomical plan of Thistle Dhu. Though DaVinci is widely considered a Renaissance artist, his work is highly classical in style. DaVinci reasoned that every natural form could be represented in geometric shapes. His sketch of Vitruvian Man is one of the most famous works of the Renaissance, though the overt geometric patterns in the sketch point to a Greco-roman classicism (appendix D).
The elements of the PRC miniature golf course– much like Classical works of art– were constructed from more artificial materials. Concrete stepping stones and artificial fountains were intertwined with endemic species and natural grass (appendix E).
No longer were miniature golf courses curvilinear and relatively spacious. By 1920, they became compact, efficient, geometric, and above all, Classical.
Sterile Minimalist (SM) (1926-1950)
The Great Depression coupled with a high demand for miniature golf resulted in one of the greatest “art for the masses” movements in American history. Miniature golf was less expensive than its counterpart, the picture show, and was also a more engaging activity. Though the artistic value of the depression era movies is often highlighted, miniature golf courses were equally artistic, in a sterile/minimalist sense.
The year 1926 marked the beginning of the most successful time in the history of miniature golf. No longer was miniature golf for the elite estate-owners or Scottish ladies. In 1926, “a pair of high-rolling promoters built a pocket course on the roof of a skyscraper in New York City’s financial district” (Bond, 120). It was not long before the Manhattan skyline was pockmarked with rooftop miniature golf courses. After the invention of the dyed cottonseed hull carpet that same year- a revolutionary step for mini-golf- Manhattan gave birth to around 150 rooftop courses; each one was highly successful (Bond 120)(appendix f).
Miniature golf courses were inevitably losing their individual quirks with the initiation of the first miniature golf franchise, Tom Thumb Golf, in 1929. It was estimated that the average prefabricated course could be installed and open for business within six days (Liebs 141). As the stock market took a dive, Garnet Carter’s Tom Thumb Empire boomed. Tom Thumb was becoming the McDonalds and Pepsi of the early ’30s. Of the approximate twenty-five thousand courses in the U.S. at the time, nearly 25%– or six thousand– were patented Tom Thumb designs (Liebs 141). The individual empire became a corporate one during the high point of mini-golf, and artistic assets were thrown out the window for quick output and maximum profit (appendix G).
Miniature Golf historian John Margolies calls this era the “1930 Gold Rush.” It was a time when capitalistic individuals could use their ingenuity and creativity with the hope of striking it rich. With limited funds, course builders were apt to rely on scrap metal, cheap construction materials, and seedy locations. Therefore, it is no surprise that miniature golf courses were often associated with racketeering (Haller). Nonetheless, the makeshift fashion of the non-corporate, non-franchised SM most closely resembled Post-Modern minimalists, such as Sol LeWitt (see appendix H).
Much like LeWitt’s sculptures, the superfluous elements of the SM course were taken out, such as landscaping, unnecessary hazards, and even benches. Courses reverted to indoor locations, artificial lighting was introduced, and a sort of Fordist efficiency reigned (appendix I).
The loop-di-loop is the ultimate example of an SM course hazard. It is made from a metallic steel or aluminum, painted in monochrome, and presents a simple hazard with the least possible distraction (appendix J).
Similar to LeWitt’s sculptures, the “fluff” is omitted in most SM courses. A Smithsonian author aptly described the reason for MiniGolf Minimalism: “As the problems of ordinary life mushroom(ed) out of manageable proportions, (the miniature golf course) was a place where everything (was) brought down to less-than-size” (Bond 120).
Cultural Renaissance (1950~1990)
In 1931 miniature golf took a dive akin to the stock market, two years earlier. Though the most popular courses managed to stay afloat, the height of miniature golf was over. ‘Midget Golf’ was no longer the primary get-rich-quick scheme of the 1930s Gold Rush. It evolved into a competitive business that made meager profits. But what Chester H. Liebs calls mini golf’s “postwar reincarnation” changed the landscape of the putting greens dramatically (Liebs 145). Americans were driving more. Everyone had a car, and freeways became the arteries of America; they also became the salvation of miniature golf.
It was during the second half of the 20th century that mini-golf became widely known as goofy golf, crazy golf, and wacky golf. In order to attract the highway gawkers, massive monuments were the moneymakers for the new courses. The larger, the better, since size attracted the most attention. Equally important to size was shock. A fantastic monument, sphinx, castle, windmill, or gold mine were all common on the new courses (appendix K).
Though the religious following of miniature golf was not quite as rabid as it was during the Depression Era, it had developed into a full-blown art. No longer did it imitate the art of the past or present, but it defied the norms and created its own genre. Lint Hatcher, founder of Wonder Magazine, says about Mini Golf’s renaissance:
Somehow, during the Fifties, the classic form of miniature golf took hold. Mini-golf designers could unconsciously assume certain basics, a general atmosphere and approach. And that meant they could spend their conscious energy figuring out how to “do their own thing” with the particulars. They knew how to bake the cake, but what kind of icing were they going to use and how were they going to decorate it (Hatcher)?
With the inadvertent funding coming from suburban families and dating teenagers the covert artists of miniature golf sculptures had free reign over their creations. Less constrictive ordinances allowed highway-side adventure courses to be a conglomeration of business and artistic expression (Liebs 146-7). The more radical and out-of-this world– the more expressionistic their works were– the better. Their investors- 10-year-olds, teenagers, dad and mom- were more than eager to relish in the works along the tapestry of 18 greens. They were experiencing art rather than simply looking at it. They were dating, interacting, competing, and viewing cultural icons all at once. The miniature golf course was the essence of 20th century ‘multinomic’ order (appendix L).
It was art, but not only that; it was so much more-a reflection of economy, history, and society all at once. The two growing meccas of miniature golf, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Southern California, were indications of such multinomic order. Myrtle Beach is a tourist hub; Southern California is the hearth of American suburbia. It was in the suburban sprawl and tourist trap that miniature golf found its ultimate home, where it became defined as one of the greatest roadside arts of the twentieth century.
In the Cultural Renaissance era of miniature golf’s history, the transition from its status as ‘kitsch’ art into a unique genre occurred. Miniature golf no longer became pretentious imitation when artists after 1980 incorporated full-scale courses in art museums across the nation. Rather than imitation, it became art’s newest inspiration. It was a part of the “collective consciousness of America,” or part of our own unique habitus (Bond) (appendix M).
As a facet of collective consciousness, it also became a tool for social change and education. In 1995, artist Ken Buhler toured “Putt-Modernism” throughout U.S. art museums. “Putt-Modernism” is described in a 1994 issue of Sports Illustrated:
Players are challenged to putt around or through, among other weird objects, a White House made of empty bottles of AZT and Zovirax (both are drugs used to combat AIDS) on the par-2 Blood on Your Hands 7th hole, the sole of a blue-faced homeless man’s shoe on the par-3 Hole-In-My-Soul Blues 17th hole, and the 20 waving arms of an inflatable Jesse Helms look-alike clown, into a bed of inflated breasts on the par-3 15th hole, Censorama. An afternoon of culture as well as a rousing round of miniature golf can be had for a mere $5 (Putnam 6).
Hatcher expounds on the artistic relevance of mini-golf, and summarizes the ultimate reason why miniature golf is not simply kitsch: “It’s seeing the Empire State Building the way the sun sees it, the way a hurricane sees it, the way God sees it: as an incredibly intricate man-made wonder that is to be treasured and appreciated not only for its grandeur but for its smallness, even its mortality.” From 1950 to 1990 miniature golf did just that. It messed with the American perspective of ‘Big’ and ‘Small,’ ‘Life’ and ‘Death.’ In the inanimate sculptures of mini-golf courses children and adults found a certain dreamy vitality. But, like the wings of a butterfly, the most aesthetically overlooked things are often ephemeral; Renaissance courses were going to the wrecking balls, and perishing in the final stage and end of its innocence. Twenty-first century corporatism was taking over.
Corporate Mini-Golf (~1990–>)
The franchises of the SM period were peanuts compared to the current international conglomerates of mini-golf corporations. Golf-N-Stuff, Putt-Putt, Scandia, Goofy Golf, and Adventure Golf-all of these patented name brand mini-golf courses have become profit ventures. Entrepreneurs prosaically refer to most as Urban Entertainment Centers (UEC’s) or, more often, Family Entertainment Centers (FEC’s) (Hunter and Bleinberger 4).
FEC’s usually contain a hodge-podge of amusement attractions (bumper boats, Indy cars), video arcades, batting cages, and, of course, the mini golf course. The location of the FEC is no longer determined by the designer’s preference, but by demographical studies, case studies, and ‘locational advantage theory’ (appendix n).
The competitive environment of the FEC niche requires that initial investment be prohibitively high, sometimes as high as $500,000 (“Getting” par.9). Gone are the days of the mom-and-pop makeshift setups; no longer could a kid from Brooklyn turn up 1000% profit each week with an initial investment of $0.90 and pilfered or donated materials (appendix O).
Money, Mini-Golf, Art, and Ahead
American consumerism has become miniature golf’s public enemy #1, indeed, Art’s worse nightmare. No longer is ‘trash’ turned into art, like it was during the Depression miniature golf craze; rather, our important and most overlooked art is now disposable, but not precious, given a value, but not valuable. Prosperity has been the death of miniature golf’s Renaissance. Ironically, mini-golf’s most successful years are during economic strife (Monroe 73). Perhaps this indicates that people place a different kind of value on miniature golf-something that cannot be expressed in terms of paper, green ink or gold.
Perhaps, mini-golf encompasses much of our identity as Americans, and when we drive by a dilapidated or demolished course, we think only of nostalgia for something that became part of us that summer day when we were 12, or that sultry night when we putted to the music of young love. Whatever the case, mini-golf has become something more than plaster and chicken wire; it is the repository of dead artists’ dreams and the hot seat of our heritage. However banal, violent, victorious, or artistic that heritage can be, miniature golf has captured it all.
- Romantic Era Emergence (1867-1916): associated with romanticism, meticulously landscaped courses with lakes and trees. Built to resemble nature and to imitate the natural golf course-esque attributes, only smaller.
- Post-Romantic Classicism (1916-1926): Geometric shapes, time-saving, yet still artistic. Made from natural materials (real grass, endemic species, stepping stones).
- Sterile Minimalist (1926-1950): Often constructed from material on hand, little or no landscaping, low overhead cost, constructed on rooftops and parking lots; can be prefabricated. Once mini-golf became adopted by the masses, it became more of a packaged product than art. Indoor courses. Scientific management. Mass Production/Fordist approach.
- Cultural Rennaisance (1950~1990): Creative cultural icons, courses reflected iconographic symbols of imagination, became more difficult and complicated. Multi-leveled, complex, unique, synthetic, family-oriented, mom-and-pop/individual ventures. The apogee of mini-golf as an art.
- Corporate MiniGolf (~1990—->): Losing artistic aspects, but is dictated rather by surveys and demographics for maximum profit. Like the movies, the funding goes to the money making venture, and not the most socially beneficial. Conglomerated with other mass-marketed entertainment ventures. Associated with amusement parks. Not an experience, but a game. With the downfall of the economy, miniature golf becomes more popular, but also less artistic. See articles on FEC’s and UEC’s.
Bond, Constance. “We couldn’t stop playing to save our soles.” Smithsonian,
June 1987 v18 p120.
Carlson, Todd A. “Our Trip to England and Scotland.” Personal Online Journal.
22 May 1999. 21 Mar. 2003.
Emory, Pamela. “The Ladies’ Putting Club.” Golf Journal. United States Golf Association. Sep 1996. vol 49-50.
“Getting Started: Miniature Golf.” CNN Money online. 9 Jul, 1999. 21 Mar 2003.
Gaylor, Earl E. “Par-3 Golf: A Survey and Manual for Parks and Recreation
Departments.” American Institute of Park Executives, 1965. Bulletin No.
Haller, Mark H. “Urban Crime and Criminal Justice: The Chicago Case.” The
Journal of American History, Vol. 57, No. 3. (Dec. 1970). pp. 619-635
Hatcher, Lint. “The Complete Illustrated History of Miniature Golf.” Rpt. From
Wonder Magazine. Winter 1994.
Hunter, Donald E. and Ernest E. Bleinberger. “Urban Entertainment Centers.”
Public Management. March 1996. p 4-9
Liebs, Chester H. “Main Street to Miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture.”
Batimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1995. p 136-151.
Margolies, John. “Miniature Golf.” New York: Abbeville Press, 1987
MCA Chicago. 2003. 21 Mar. 2003.
“Miniature Golf: A Popular Game in Little.” London Times. 29 Aug, 1930. p 16.
“Miniature and Putting Courses: Insights and Opportunities.” Second Ed. Jupiter,
FL: National Golf Foundation, 1999.
Monroe, Sylvester. “Welcome to Putters Paradise.” Time. 11 Sep. 1989.
v134 n11 p 73.
Pioch, Nicholas “Constable, John” Webmuseum, Paris. 18 Sep. 2002. 21 Mar.
Plecker, Coleman. Coleman Plecker’s World of Golf. 1999. 21 Mar. 2003.
Thomas, George C. “Golf Architecture in America: Its Strategy and Construction.”
Los Angeles: Times-Mirror Press, 1927.