During mini-golf's first big boom 85 years ago, there was nothing little about the industry. According to the New York Times, by August 1930 there were over 25,000 mini-golf courses in the country. At the same time, there were only about 6,000 regular golf courses in America.
By some accounts, the sport of mini-golf, or “midget golf” as it used to be called, first appeared as an alternative for women due to the belief that regular golf was somehow unladylike. In fact, the first putting-only course in the world was built in 1867 at the famed Scottish course of St. Andrews solely for the St. Andrews' Ladies Putting Club.
From 1867 until the mid-1920s, mini-golf courses were mostly miniaturized, putting-only versions of regular golf courses. That changed in the late 1920s, when Garnet Carter built and patented his Tom Thumb course in the resort town of Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Taking the “putting-only” course a step further, he added rock tunnels and hollowed-out logs as obstacles and “soon found that his miniature golf course was far more profitable than his standard one.”
Mini-golf has come far from the days of hollowed-out logs—today's courses feature obstacles such as replicas of national landmarks, subway stations and laughing clowns. While there are only about 5,000 mini-golf courses still in America, there is a real art to the elaborate design of many of them. Here are six of the most eye-catching around the the country:
Par-King Skill Golf: Lincolnshire, Illinois
Fifty years ago, Amusement Business magazine called this mini-golf course in the suburbs of Chicago “Mini-Golf’s Taj Mahal,” saying it was the most elaborate and highest-grossing course in the country. Today, this multi-generational family-owned business is still thriving.
The family refers to Par-King as the "World's Most Unusual Miniature Golf Course" due to its many elaborate obstacles, which include a scale model of Mount Rushmore, a hand-crafted carousel and a replica Statue of Liberty. In 1975, the owners added a miniature wooden golf coaster (like a roller coaster, but designed to carry a golf ball) and, in the early 2000s, a steel “Super Looper” coaster that carries the ball upside-down. They are the only two like them in the world.
Walker on the Green: Minneapolis, Minnesota
In 2014, the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis reached out to local artists to help them design and create a one-of-a-kind, fun family activity in their sculpture garden in downtown Minneapolis. The resulting course at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden turns every hole into a piece of art.
Now in its second year, this 18-hole course offers unique and downright confusing challenges. One hole uses the “uncertainty principle” to make putters guess which of the eight holes is the right one, while others involve a cemetery, a billiards table and a musical Zen garden. Open until the end of September, this is a summer-only activity. (Representatives of the Walker Art Center told Smithsonian.com that the sculpture garden will be under construction in 2016, and they have not yet made a decision about bringing back the course.)
Disney's Fantasia Gardens: Orlando, Florida
The more family-friendly course is themed around the 1940 Disney hit Fantasia. Pirouetting alligators, dancing water fountains and spinning mushrooms accompany players as they putt their way through 18 holes. Music from the movie is part of the experience, including surprising sound effects for hole-in-ones.
The Fantasia Fairways course is built like a traditional golf course, miniaturized by about a third. It is one of the most difficult mini-golf courses in the country due to its varied water hazards, sand traps and hilly greens—just like on a PGA regulation course. Many of the holes also exceed over one hundred feet.
Around the World Miniature Golf: Lake George, New York
When he was a young man during World War II, Harry Horn traveled across the country as a Navy electrician and pilot. After finally settling down in his hometown of Lake George, New York, Horn put his experiences and the souvenirs he brought back to good use. In 1963, he opened “Around the U.S. in 18 Holes,” a mini-golf course of his own design and construction. Today, popular holes on the course include an ax-wielding Paul Bunyan, a giant lobster and a miniature replica of a New York subway station.
Several years after opening, Horn added a second course—“Around the World in 18 Holes,” in which one hole requires putters to hit the ball through the animated legs of Napoleon. Located on the shores of Lake George, both courses are still operating today and are owned by Harry’s son, Chris.
Hawaiian Rumble Mini-Golf: Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Imagine, for a moment, lining up a putt at a mini-golf course several feet from the 18th hole. All of a sudden, a giant volcanic explosion rocks the green and everyone’s concentration. This may not seem like a welcome interruption at a golf course, but it is exactly what happens every 20 minutes at a course that's been featured in Golf magazine and the New York Times: Hawaiian Rumble in Myrtle Beach.
Situated in the "mini-golf capital of the world," this popular course is the annual home of the United States Pro Minigolf Association Masters and is regarded as one of the toughest in the world. Although finely manicured and decorated with with hibiscus and palm trees, the real star of the course is the 40-foot concrete volcano. Originally used as a prop for the Dennis Hopper-directed movie Chasers, the volcano now causes mini-golfers to regularly shank their putts.
Urban Putt: San Francisco, California
San Francisco's landmarks come alive at Urban Putt in the Mission district. Conceived by former tech journalist Steve Fox as a whirling, mechanical, high-tech course, it was designed and built by 65 local artists, designers and robotic experts. The holes are inspired by some of San Francisco’s most iconic attractions, including the Painted Ladies, Lotta's Fountain and the cable cars.
Urban Putt is also home to Don Rosenfeld’s interactive art installation Sleepwalkers, which features a tiny luminous being embedded in the wall and interacting with its environment. Using projection mapping, computer graphics and the old-fashioned "Pepper's Ghost" illusion, the installation adds a little magic to the golfing.