2003 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors
Miniature Golf in the Kingdom
Tilting at windmills … and other distractions
by John Margolies
Here, there and everywhere this faux incarnation of the grand old game has enthralled many generations. Its very first manifestation in the Adirondacks—and one of the earliest anywhere—was a course in Lake George at the corner of Beach Road and Canada Street. An entrepreneur named George Parrott opened his eighteen-hole course under a grove of tall pine trees in 1927. Parrott’s Miniature Golf, which was later known as Rustic Golf, had felt-carpet putting surfaces over gravel bases. Birch-log runners as well as a few red-painted lead pipes outlined the holes and kept balls from rolling off the greens. There were obstacles to confound duffers, including a windmill and a metal loop-de-loop. One hole featured three tunnels made of four- or five-inch-diameter metal pipes set side by side, with the middle one taking the ball straight to the hole. Overhead lighting was installed for nighttime play to entice more golfers to spend ten cents a round. In the winter, Parrott rolled up his carpets and set them up in Miami. Business was good enough that he then opened a second course, in Chestertown, in the 1930s or ’40s.
This Lake George landmark operated, with some alterations, until the 1970s. Parrott’s son, John, ran it until his death, in 1967. Then a succession of owners constructed other buildings on the site, and the beautiful old pine trees were chopped down. A small but very nice contemporary course, Putts ’n’ Prizes, now operates on most of the original site right in the heart of the action.
There were other early courses. Arto Monaco, creator of the Land of Makebelieve, the beloved kids’ theme park in Upper Jay that closed in the late 1970s, remembers that his father, Louis, built Peewee Golf, a nine-hole layout in Upper Jay in the early 1930s. It had putting surfaces of fine gravel mixed with lime and packed hard every day, and wooden runners shaped the greens. Among the obstacles were a windmill, a crooked pipe and a ramp leading up to a two-way chute that dropped a ball nearer to or farther from the cup. Cut-out wooden figures of clowns and animals decorated the premises.
Monaco recalls that there was another early course in Au Sable Forks, and given the region’s history of tourism, there must have been others. But because of the ephemeral nature of these operations, they, like Peewee Golf, might have existed for only a short time before vanishing without documentary evidence.
The mini movement in the north woods is only a small part of the sport’s fascinating history. As early as 1916 there was a course on a private estate in Asheville, North Carolina. But public fairy-tale fairways didn’t begin to appear until the 1920s. Links could be found on rooftops in New York City, and they popped up on vacant lots all over the country. The venerable Lake George course was right there at the start. But the real birthplace of the game, in the late 1920s, was at a real-estate development called Fairyland, atop Lookout Mountain, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. There, mini links were constructed to appease golfers waiting for a real golf course to be completed. This mini course evolved into the Tom Thumb Golf chain, which spread like wildfire across America.
In those heady days, songs were written about the game, including “I’ve Gone Goofy over Miniature Golf” and “Since My Wife Took Up Miniature Golf,” and the John Wanamaker Department Store even designed special fashions for mini golfers. Karal Ann Marling, an art historian at the University of Minnesota, characterized the game as “the last of the goofy fads of the 1920s,” equating miniature golf to other silly activities like marathon dancing, goldfish swallowing and flagpole sitting. Grantland Rice, writing in Colliers in September 1930, reported that miniature links “became thicker than blooms in a daisy field, and thousands of addicts are playing day and night—all day and all night in many places. … There are now somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 courses with more than six million people playing.” Other sources estimated twenty-five to fifty thousand courses. Shortly after Rice’s piece was published, the bubble burst for what became known as “the madness of 1930,” and the fad went into remission.
But mini golf never disappeared entirely, because it had tapped into the very ethos of our culture. The game was and still is a manifestation of rags-to-riches ideas and instant gratification. Its first comeback took place after World War II, as the pastime marched in lockstep with the automotive strips linking downtowns to the suburbs. By the 1970s and 1980s, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, evolved into the miniature-golf capital of the world, a distinction it still holds. There, along a long highway strip, are dozens of courses, the more elaborate built at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Like many of the earliest courses, which had incredibly difficult holes to test devotees, the contemporary trend in miniature golf is to design links that challenge putters’ skills. Some of the courses in the Adirondacks are quite difficult, and one—Calypso’s Cove, in Old Forge—makes it nearly impossible to shoot a low score. The manager there says that it was modeled after the big PGA courses. Even professional mini golfers (yes, there are pros) would have trouble negotiating greens at this facility built in 1994. But, not surprisingly, the Professional Miniature Golf Association of America stages its annual Open tournament in Myrtle Beach rather than Old Forge.
Calypso’s Cove is not for the faint of heart. There isn’t a funky obstacle in sight. Instead, there are large and very challenging holes. Some greens undulate precipitously and twist and turn menacingly; others are so tricky that two hole choices—one easier than the other—are offered. A waterfall, its rivulets running through the course, creates the water hazards, beckoning garishly colored golf balls to drop into the drink. There are large, gaping sand traps as well. While these mini-deserts add to the difficulty, they also contribute to maintenance problems. Putters just weren’t intended for use as sand wedges. Without constant attention, especially at the end of a busy day, ambient sand litters the greens. Older putting masochists will have a great time at Calypso’s, but younger duffers in Old Forge might be better off taking their chances at Over the Rainbow or Nutty Putty.
The three Pirate’s Cove Adventure Golf links along Route 9, in Lake George and Queensbury, are part of a chain of twenty-four courses, nearly all of them east of the Mississippi. They are also quite challenging: The brochure boasts “championship holes,” but most are not as hard as Calypso’s Cove’s. Holes vary in their degree of difficulty. Of the two Queensbury Pirate’s Cove courses, “the Legend” and “Blackbeard’s,” the latter is said to be more difficult. These links are beautiful examples of the “Myrtle Beach style” that was perfected in South Carolina about twenty-five years ago: Land is excavated at the front of the site to create an inviting lake, and the fill is used to make a mountain behind the lake and entice motorists. Artificial rock is sprayed on the mountain, and smaller gobs of fake stone in free-form shapes serve as obstacles. Large waterfalls with dyed water gush from the mountain into the lake, and the water is then recirculated.
The greens, deployed in and about the slope as well as on the flats around the lake, are immaculate expressions of artificial turf. The total effect, with added pirate-theme flourishes, is, according to a brochure, “swashbuckling fun for the entire family.” It’s hard to disagree.
The general public, unaware of the finer points of miniature-golf course design, considers courses such as Pirate’s Cove to be the latest and greatest. And they are that. But the links are also the contemporary cliché—a formula used throughout the United States. Those of us with a broader knowledge of the game long for courses chock full of individually crafted funky folk art, and there are still great examples of these in the Adirondacks as well. I find these old-fashioned types to be the most endearing because they are similar to the ones where I putted away my youth in the 1950s.
Around the World in Lake Placid was, until its dismantling last autumn, the zaniest in the park and one of the best of the folk-art courses. Harry Horn—a skilled practitioner of the old-fashioned miniature-golf arts—first designed two similar courses along Beach Road in Lake George: Around the USA, completed in 1963, and Around the World, built two years later.
Like its Lake George prototype, the Lake Placid course, built in the mid-1970s, had imaginative obstacles representing various countries from around the globe. It was impossible to miss its twenty-five-foot-high fiberglass Viking, representing Norway, looming over Route 86. On a glum and windy day last August, I shot a round with two editors of this magazine. We had a great time displaying our ineptitude while enjoying the procession of barriers, some made of wire mesh and plaster over steel frames and built by artist Jack Binder, of Chestertown. I defeated my competitors, a triumph of luck over skill.
At Around the World courses, with their representational hazards and statues, nothing is sacred. The great icons of civilization have been pressed into service in these mazes of artificial delight. In Lake George, a model Taj Mahal represents India; Lake Placid had one as well. There are Egyptian pyramids too, and at the Lake Placid course a purple-robed Buddha with deeply set beady eyes depicted Japan. Its religious significance was lost upon one little girl who was overheard saying, “Look! You have to hit the ball under the fat man.”
After a long and successful run at Around the World in Lake Placid, owner Jerry Spoor, now in his late sixties, decided to retire. The Pirate’s Cove chain bought the property last fall and promptly razed it to make room for a new eighteen-hole course. (The huge Viking has found a home: Jack Gillette adopted the big guy and moved him down to his Magic Forest Amusement Park, in Lake George, where the Norseman will coexist with Uncle Sam and many other oversized figures.)
A spokesman for this Michigan-based chain told me that Lake Placid authorities approved their plans only after they were promised that the new course would be “tasteful”—no more large statues. Of course, taste is a relative concept. Although I admire the immaculate and attractive Pirate’s Cove courses, I mourn the passing of Lake Placid’s Around the World because it was a great example of old-time miniature golf.
Two other links pay homage, superficially and tacitly, to the beauty of their surroundings. Adirondack Golf, in Lake Luzerne, is decorated with statues of local wildlife: a bear, deer, skunks and chipmunks, to name a few. The very location of Grandview Mini Golf, in Northampton, is reflective of the region’s natural splendor. The course, created in 2001, is along four hundred feet of frontage on Great Sacandaga Lake. It has six ponds, two fountains, as well as obstacles and a mountain made of native boulders.
The most charming example of the folk-art genre is Nutty Putty, under the trees in Old Forge. It is also the oldest course in the North Country, holding forth since it was planned and built by Ida and Meyer Cohen in 1961. Mrs. Cohen reports that her husband pooh-poohed the idea at first, thinking that it would never succeed. Was he ever mistaken. Ida first ordered catalogs from miniature-golf course manufacturers to serve as inspiration, and then sketched out her course on a piece of cardboard. Meyer, a butcher by trade, handcrafted some of the major obstacles in his Utica basement. His windmill and lighthouse—standard obstacles on most courses—are superb examples of the genre. The catchy Nutty Putty name came from a local newspaper ad asking for suggestions, and the “nutty” refers to the game’s goofiness rather than to the squirrels and chipmunks found around the premises.
Two other obstacle courses, Goony Golf, in Lake George, and Over the Rainbow, in Old Forge, are perfect choices for younger duffers. Goony, part of a chain that originated in Chattanooga, is a vast garden of earthly as well as unearthly delights. It is the most child-friendly of all the Adirondack layouts, where fairy-tale characters are brought to life along with a menagerie of real and imaginary beasts. The level of skill at Goony Golf is also geared to the young set—once the obstacles are overcome, and in many cases it isn’t all that difficult, the hole is close at hand. Although a bit harder to negotiate, Over the Rainbow, which draws from The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, is a magnet for children of all ages. There, along a yellow brick road, are a Bert Lahr–ish Cowardly Lion, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and the rest of the gang. A replica of Roy Rogers’s Trigger is inexplicably thrown into the mix.
At the end of a round of small pleasures, at least at many of the old-fashioned courses, miniature golf is transformed into Skee Ball at the eighteenth hole, where the golfer must sail the ball off a jump and into a target. At Nutty Putty the “hit the ball into the clown’s nose” is the best I’ve seen anywhere, a beautiful handcrafted example of last-hole design. In the unlikely event that a putt ends up in that little opening, the player gets a free round. But most of the time the ball is swallowed up elsewhere on the target and disappears. Often, because of the continuing popularity of the game, a new ball will appear as duffers ante up to play another round … and then another.