Mini Golf Is Big Business for Professional Putters

American Icons, Featured Article, Sports
on September 5, 2013
David Mudd

While miniature golf brings to mind leisurely fun and whimsical windmills for most Americans who putt at the nation’s 1,600 courses, intense competition is par for the course for a small group of players who participate in dozens of tournaments each year.

“Out of 3 million people in this great country, 300 people take miniature golf seriously enough to play professionally,” says PPA Commissioner Joe Aboid, of Lynchburg, Va.

Greg Ward, 51, a construction-equipment salesman from Loganville, Ga., won the 2012 Professional Putters Association (PPA) National Championship last September.

“I love the competition. The guys are all real close,” Ward says about his riveting win after 144 holes of play, a tie and sudden-death playoff.

A swing through history

Fun was in the fore in 1919 when wealthy businessman James Barber built his home, Thistle Dhu, in Pinehurst, North Carolina, along with the first miniature golf course in America. By the 1920s, miniature golf was such a sensation that as many as 50,000 courses operated nationwide, even atop roofs in New York City.

In 1928, Garnet Carter built a pint-size golf course, which he called Tom Thumb, to entertain guests at his Lookout Mountain hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Featuring wooden railed fairways lined with cottonseed hulls, the obstacle-laden, 18-hole course proved so popular that Carter patented the design and franchised Tom Thumb Golf.

America’s oldest operating miniature golf course, Parkside’s Whispering Pines in Sea Breeze, New York, opened in 1930. Owners Jim and Greg Papas refurbished the course last year in a nautical style featuring a lighthouse, rowboat and pilings, while maintaining the original design and pathways built with cobblestone from the Erie Canal.

“It’s very homey and cozy and beautiful,” says Sue Courtney, 54, who played the Whispering Pines course as a 10-year-old with her sister and friends. “The best part was trying to get a hole in one at the end because you got a free game. We’d jump up and down.”

Today, Courtney’s granddaughters, Sophie Flores, 8, and Gabbi Flores, 6, jump for joy when they win a free game.

Many miniature golf courses closed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the game rebounded in the 1950s as families took to the highways. The whimsical roadside attractions beckoned with whirling windmills and castles with drawbridges that could redirect golf balls.

Professional putting

Gimmicky golf didn’t amuse the late Don Clayton, who promoted the amusement as a competitive sport when he opened his first Putt-Putt course in 1954 in Fayetteville, N.C. He designed a no-frills course with wooden rails and par-2 holes that could be aced by a skilled miniature golfer.

Clayton franchised Putt-Putt courses with their copyrighted holes, founded the PPA in 1959, and organized the first professional competition that year. The top male putter drove home a new Cadillac and the top female won a Pontiac. First prizes ballooned to $50,000 as corporations sponsored the game during the 1960s and 1970s.

The latest PPA winner, Greg Ward, won $2,500 and has pocketed $170,000 in prize money since turning pro in 1982.

But golfers who’ve parlayed their favorite childhood game into a grownup profession say the thrill is the friendly competition as much as the money.

“On the last nine holes, the adrenaline is really going,” says Rick Baird, 55, of Charlotte, N.C., who in 2011 became the first golfer since 1955 to play a perfect game of 18 holes-in-one. “You’re in the hunt. That’s what we all play for.”

Though they’re serious about winning, the pros congratulate their competitors after holes-in-one and chat like old friends before and after competition.

Such camaraderie led to marriage for golfer Bonnie White, 58, of Tiffin, Ohio. In 1976, her husband, James, proposed to her on hole 9 at the former Putt-Putt Golf and Games in Tonawanda, N.Y., where they met years earlier during a tournament.

Mini Masters

While PPA holds its national championships on no-frills Putt-Putt courses, the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association hosts its Masters Championship each fall beside a 45-foot-tall fire-belching volcano at Hawaiian Rumble in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“It’s the Augusta National of mini golf,” says association founder and course owner Bob Detwiler, 65, about the Hawaiian-themed adventure course abloom with hibiscus and palm trees.

While the prestigious Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga., bestows a coveted green sports coat, winners of the mini Masters receive a green windbreaker. “The players want that green jacket more than the money,” Detwiler says.

Last October, Olivia Prokopova, 17, of the Czech Republic, took home the green jacket and $4,000 for winning her first mini Masters title. In May, Prokopova, the top female contender in the male-dominated sport, also won the association’s U.S. Open for the second time.

Creative courses

Today, miniature greens often mimic their larger counterparts with undulations, water hazards and sand traps, though the golf courses’ overall architecture and themes are designed for broad appeal.

Perils of the Lost Jungle in Herndon, Va., for example, features Disney-like attractions and surprises, including animated monkeys, Tarzan swinging overhead, a witch doctor and water-spitting frogs.

“All the creativity that people put into these miniature golf courses is like a form of art,” says Pat Sheridan, 34, of Manchester, Conn., who has played at more than 130 courses.

Sheridan and his college friend, Mandy Ranslow, created The Putting Penguin website in 2001 to review the courses they visit and to share their love for the game.

“The thrill of mini golf is that it caters to all skill levels and body sizes,” Sheridan says. “You don’t have to be a freak of nature to become good at miniature golf.”