Mini-golf: a cultural icon back on the putting edge

A LONELY pair of golf shoes sticks up from a quicksand pit. Breezes rush across the mountain above, carrying sounds of tropical birds, as a waterfall crashes past caves near a thatched hut. ``I got a hole in one!'' yells three-year-old Kyle Weise of Milwaukee, who had actually taken four or five shots around an African-style totem on the sloping contours of Hole 3 before finally dropping the ball in.

But then, Dad wasn't counting.

``What did I get?'' asks his dad, Anthony, wielding a putter with only a tad more success than the boy. ``You got a 2,'' says Kyle definitively, moving on.

This is Kenosha's newly opened Congo River Golf and Exploration Company - and it's at the putting edge of a silly American sport that's undergoing a late-20th-century resurgence.

Miniature golf is that perennially appealing game in which adults and children, men and women, can compete on an equal footing. It's been described in recent years as a folk art, recreation, cultural icon, putting practice, and '50s family nostalgia.

But whether it be art or sport, mini-golf is changing with the times. Many new courses are more theme-oriented; some incorporate elaborate high-tech hazards and contemporary motifs. Some courses have moved inside malls, and a new one in Stone Harbor, N.J., is a five-level high-rise course. The cost of such new courses: $1 million and up.

Themes on thriving old and new courses range from the literate to the lunatic. In Myrtle Beach, S.C., mini-golfers pass through a cave with an underwater view of fish swimming around skeletons of ``Moby Dick'' and ``Captain Ahab,'' on a course featuring quotations from Herman Melville's novel. In Morton Grove, Ill., you can putt your ball into an elevator of Chicago's Prudential Building, up to the top, and onto the green. Among the favorite hazards and landscapes of mini-golf experts around the country are an elephant graveyard, Easter Island totem heads, a sand-dune course, and a tribute to New York State recreational landmarks.

In Chicago, mini-golf was bona fide art

Meanwhile, this summer thousands of art lovers and golf enthusiasts jammed an art exhibit that featured a playable 18-hole golf course at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Designed by a group of bona fide artists, the exhibit is being prepared to go on tour.

One hole featured a replica of Chicago's Dan Ryan Expressway, complete with potholes and construction work as hazards. A nuclear missile hovered ominously over another.

``The number of courses is increasing; the scale and ambition of the courses are also increasing - it's really becoming an art form,'' says Maria Reidelbach, co-author of ``Miniature Golf'' (Abbeville Press, 1987).

``We've discovered that the perceptions of our youth were valid: It's a good, clean, safe date - you can be Jack Nicklaus in 10 minutes,'' says John Margolies, a photographer who provided photos for the book.

Newer-style theme courses such as the Congo River often emphasize landscaping more than old-style hazards such as moving windmills, but can be tricky nonetheless.

``It's easier than full golf,'' opined Pauline Mann, a native of Surrey, in England, where miniature golf is also popular, as she teed off at the 18th hole. No sooner said, however, than her ball overshot the stream of water that was supposed to shoot it into the hole, landing instead in the lagoon. Her nine-year-old son, Jonathan, was only too happy to clamber down rocks and into the tropical waters to fish it out.

Congo River manager Philip Atkinson says that as many as 1,000 people a day have played through the $4-a-person course since it opened in July, with waiting lists sometimes reaching two hours.

Across town, professional golf pro George Capoun and family maintain the kind of traditional Midwestern ``folk art'' miniature golf course that some still prefer, with tree-shaded lawns, windmills, rotating parts, and a $1.75 fee. On Mr. Capoun's course, four-year-old Janene Elfering was yelling with delight at a rusty curlicue that propelled her ball (with help from Dad) into a hole.

``Golf courses and driving ranges are increasing in popularity and miniature golf is seeming to go hand in hand,'' notes Jerry Hinckley, a National Golf Foundation spokesman.

Some golf buffs who want to practice putting even see miniature golf as an alternative to regular links. Ivan Lendl, for example, was spotted playing 36 consecutive holes of miniature golf earlier this year while on a tennis tour.

Ms. Reidelbach estimates there are about 10,000 miniature-golf courses in the United States, and chains report a rise in franchise inquiries in recent years.

``The last few years have been unbelievable for miniature golf,'' says Joe Rogari, director of marketing at the Pennsylvania-based Mini-Golf Inc., which he says builds about 150 courses a year, more than double its business five years ago.

Adds Richard Lahey of the New Jersey-based Harris Miniature Golf Courses Inc., ``at campgrounds where we normally would put in a rinky-dink miniature golf course, now we're putting in a $100,000 course with waterfalls.'' Many of the most elaborate courses are in Sunbelt resorts.

This summer, Putt-Putt Golf Courses of America offered more than $200,000 in prize money for championship miniature-golf tourneys, and produced three TV shows on the matches. Putt-Putt also reports seven new courses planned or being built in Japan.

And Mike O'Brien and other organizers of the Chicago exhibit are forming a company to put artists to work in designing miniature-golf courses and other offbeat projects.

Is it serious sport or just a game?

The game is often described by aficionados as ``the last fad of the 1920s.'' Invented in 1916 in North Carolina, it boomed and then fell into disrepute around 1930, only to bounce back in the '50s. During the depression, Will Rogers criticized it for frivolity, saying: ``There is millions got a `putter' in their hand, when they ought to have a shovel.''

Even today, it is not a pastime without controversy.

``Real golfers get a little up in arms when the subject of miniature golf comes up; they say it's just a game,'' Reidelbach says. ``There's a kind of schism in miniature golfdom between those who see miniature golf as a serious sport and everyone else, who see it as just fun.''

``It's something you can play with your girlfriend, and if you do lousy, you're not perceived as not being macho enough,'' Mr. O'Brien adds.

Well, sometimes.

Back at Congo River, Greg Weatherford of suburban Chicago was watching his date hit the ball off the African mountain that is set incongruously between a Howard Johnson's motel and a Burger King on the expressway to Milwaukee.

``I'm not winning by as much as I want to be,'' he says, grinning evilly as her ball rolled back down the slope. ``But this may be my chance.''

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