Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Putt 'er Here!

By C.J. Hirschfield

I love reading Funworld Magazine, the official publication of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. It was there that I learned that the enduring game of miniature golf will be celebrating its centennial this year. That’s right: 100 years of windmills, clowns, tubes, ramps, chutes, kitsch and Americana.

You may not know that Fairyland’s original sets, designed in 1950 by architect William Russell Everritt, were widely copied by developers of mini-golf courses in the 1950s and 1960s. Storybook theme parks and mini-golf courses both proliferated in the postwar years, as families sought out affordable places to have fun together.

Filmmaker and mini-golfer Amanda Kulkoski. Favorite course obstacle: the "Pachinko hole."


Amanda Kulkoski fell in love with the sport in the 1980s, when she was growing up. So it wasn’t surprising that her first job in her hometown of Green Bay, Wis., was at the local miniature golf course. She’d sweep the holes, move boulders to alter a course, hand out balls, sell soft-serve ice cream and clean the bathrooms.

“I loved to play – still do,” she says.

Now Amanda – who grew up to become a film professor in Savannah, Ga., and a professional film and television crew person – is in post-production on the first documentary feature to focus on mini-golf.  It’s called, appropriately, Through the Windmill, and Amanda hopes to release it in the fall.

To get the footage, she traveled to nearly 50 courses (mostly mom-and-pop operations) and spoke with the top mini-golf design firms and the number-one turf manufacturer.  I asked her to name her favorite interviews. One was Vance Randall, a former putt-putt champion in the 1960s and 1970s and the fifth player inducted into the U.S. Mini Golf Hall of Fame. Now 75, he regaled Amanda with stories about guys traveling across the U.S., playing for Cadillacs.

Pigs Gone AMUK course in Blairsville, Georgia. Image via MiniGolfMovie.com


Amanda also enjoyed meeting the two brothers who now run Par-King Skill Golf in Chicago (“the world’s most unusual golf course”), which was started by their grandfather. This course has the ball going up and down elevators, traveling on a wooden coaster, and shooting out of a Sears Tower replica.  

There’s a stone-themed course in Mound, Minn., that’s located in an artists’ colony; the goats there often wander off with players’ balls. There is a course in the basement of a funeral home in Palatine, Ill., and there have been several in libraries, where temporary courses are used as fundraisers.

Hot-dog slide at Vitense Golfland in Madison, Wisconsin -- home of the Oscar Mayer company. Image via MiniGolfMovie.com.


You might think that interest in the sport would be diminishing after a hundred years, but you’d be wrong. “There’s a huge artist movement now, with artist-designed and pop-up [temporary] courses,” Amanda says. While some are traditional, others are definitely not. At Smashputt in Seattle, for example, the ball is pushed through a box where a drill punches a hole in it; the damaged ball is then funneled into a bucket. On another Smashputt hole, golfers fire balls across a range, attempting to hit a piano. 

FIGMENT NYC, an artist-designed course on Governor’s Island in New York, “captures the multitude of transportation options from the past, present and future; it highlights the positive and/or negative social, economic, or environmental impacts of transportation; and it interprets abstract transportation practices such as meditation.”

Magic Carpet Mini Golf, Reno, Nevada. Image via MniGolfMovie.com


“Artists’ courses really make me happy,” says Amanda. But so do the simple pleasures of families and friends enjoying themselves in the fresh air. And the kitschy, fanciful sets.

I’m looking forward to the independent film’s release, which the filmmaker describes as feeling very much like a road trip. Until then, I plan to visit a supercool steampunk-themed course in San Francisco called Urban Putt that Amanda told me about. True to its San Francisco location, UP has a restaurant that “celebrates the American palate with an emphasis on the best organic and locally-sourced ingredients available.” Oh, and they also have two bars serving “inventive cocktails.”

Urban Putt, an indoor mini-golf course in San Francisco. Image via Urban Putt.


Here’s to another hundred years of miniature golf—in all its forms-- and to the people who love it.

For more about Amanda’s film, go to minigolfmovie.com.

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park.


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