History of mini-golf
Jun 20, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
My favorite group activity is usually a board game night (hosted with lots of homemade goodies – naturally), but when the weather allows there’s another top choice I make a beeline for: mini-golf. There’s something special about the bending course, fake lawn, and miniature vignettes that bring me so much joy I forget about my relative lack of golfing talent! After seeing this headline highlighting the cultural significance of the sport, I realized my knowledge about my beloved mini-golf was pretty limited. As a lover of all things vintage I can’t let that stand, so allow me to introduce you to the plucky past of putt-putt…
When we think of America in the mid-1800’s our minds may race to the Pony Express or the Civil War, but at the same time Scotland’s Ladies’ Putting Club of St. Andrews was quietly hosting their first event on a scaled-down course. (Apparently in this day and age a proper lady wouldn’t dare to pass a golf club back past her shoulder, so a smaller course was meant to pacify the woman who wanted to retain her reputation while taking on the links.) What began as way to find another “respectable” sporting option for women ended up being the seed of inspiration for mini-golfing in America a few decades later. The idea of an edited version of a regular golf course – including those pesky sand traps – really took off after that fateful gathering in Scotland. In the early days these “female-friendly” venues closely resembled their “male” counterparts.
But by 1916 an American by the name of James Barber let his imagination roam and changed the course of mini-golf (pun intended!) by designing Thistle Du in North Carolina. The breathtaking design took a nod from the classics, introducing fountains and geometric pathways. While James, a wealthy New York merchant, may have been hiding a landscape architect’s mentality – Shakespeare he was not. The name for the course comes from his initial reaction to his completed masterpiece – “this’ll do.” Hey, sometimes simplicity is best!
Before the crash in 1929, the mini-golf craze was reaching new heights (literally!) as New York creatives were designing courses specifically for rooftops. By 1930 the big apple alone was home to 150 rooftop golfing escapes! During the economic down-turn most folks couldn’t pay for a round of golf at their favorite hang-out, but the love of the game remained strong among both genders. Pocketbook-friendly courses turned up to capitalize on the excitement, with designs constructed of found materials. These simple obstacles of tires or pipes became popular and soon were in demand among the high-end mini-golfing clientele.
The 1930s also gave the sport a new advocate in Garnet Carter, a driving force behind the fledgling tourist economy. Garnet created his first mini-golf course as an attraction for the patrons at his Fairyland Inn in Chattanooga and the theme came from the English folklore character Tom Thumb. This introduction of detailed theming brought a renewed sense of whimsy to the game and now the whole family was welcome to take part in the fun. Always the savvy businessman, Garnet patented his concept and soon 25% of all American courses were Tom Thumb designs. With about four million mini-golfers enjoying the sport annually, it seemed the popularity would only soar. However with WWII looming the craze ended – the menfolk were sent to far flung places and the gals were too busy supporting the war effort. But by the mid-1950’s young families were looking for fun again and mini-golf enjoyed a renaissance, especially with the introduction of mechanical obstacles (hello, windmills!).
If we fast-forward to present times, it’s estimated America is home to a mere 5,000 mini-golf courses. It may sound meager, but for this plucky sport that just means it’s primed for another resurgence. After all, the history of mini-golf has taught us that the sport seems to find the spotlight during tough times, even redefining itself to fit the current American climate. I don’t know that there is another sport that has captured our hearts in such a fashion, but do share your thoughts in the comments below!