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Voices of Summer: Miniature Golf

Can another round on fake, plastic (putting) green shed light on American culture?

Mini Golf

Woman putting on miniature golf course, low section, side view

Philip Nealey

In the summer between 9th and 10th grade, I lost my virginity on a miniature golf course in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to a wide-mouthed vixen two years my senior who could rip through the back nine in five under — and ace the nasty, par-three ski jump on 12.

She was loitering near the over-under corkscrew ramp on six (par three). I dispatched it in one, although, admittedly, so what? Anyone could. The tin ramp sent the most inept shot banging calmly around its turn and dead on into the cup. I hoped she didn’t know that.

“Nice ball,” she said.

I managed a faint thanks. I was a nervous teen already half mad with summertime longing. It took all my courage to chirp. “That hole with the windmill is kinda hard, though . . .” when she cracked her gum and said something about wanting to help me with my putter.

A moment later I found myself climbing after her into what I had thought was nothing more than the machinery housing of the six-foot Ferris wheel on ten (par three). There, on a makeshift seat, amid the low grinding of the motor and the dinky cheers of the family of four obiviously playing through (“Good girl, Cheryl! Now hit it with the club!”) I scaled the peaks of ecstasy. Her name was Corinne. She was a junior at a school somewhere between Wildwood and Pleasantville. It was she who taught me that the hottest girls and snazziest guys took their outlaw passion to the coolest joints in the land: America’s miniature golf courses.

The above, of course, is a pathetic lie. But how else to interest anyone in what may arguably be dismissed as the feeblest outdoor activity this side of waiting for a bus? Even bird watching offers a certain amount of sweaty tramping around. But miniature golf? The very term is a tiptoe through the tulips: four syllables of mincing diminutive, ending in the burplike name (half gulp, half cough) of a sport for potbellied geezers and insurance salesmen in Ban-Lon. Not only is it golf, it’s miniature — a game invented by nannies for the entertainment of eunuchs.

Or so it is on the average course, where, in the merciless summer sun, gawky kids and irritable parents plod across a desert of moth-eaten brown carpet. Each green is a portable, crude wood-frame box. The figurines do not charm, the atmosphere suggests a parking lot, and the whole dismal mess is done in garish, peeling primary colors. The course itself seems dropped on its gravel-covered site from the sky or — more likely — off of a flatbed truck leased by some sharpie “entrepreneur” with a limited dream.

These are the sort of places that give miniature golf a bad name. I knew a different kind of course: a life-size Candy Land, shrub lined and pastel hued, as remote from traffic as a Caribbean isle; where a crisp ocean breeze kicked zesty spray off a spuming waterfall grotto, as flags flapped on freshly painted white stanchions and sea gulls wheeled overhead and chuckled knowingly at the miniature golfer’s ridiculous folly.

I played on such a course every summer for nearly 10 years, never winning so much as a free game. Unlike the last hole on other, tackier courses, my black-hole-like 18th (an implacable, inexorable par one) had no ramps for hitting the bull’s-eye for a complimentary round. Instead it consisted of a single big hump that sloped down to a tilted, funnel-shaped green. Clear the top and your red or blue or orange no-name ball rolled down into a bottomless cup that proved, on closer inspection, to be the mouth of an underground tube. I liked to watch neophytes reach in and recoil in shock. That ball was gone forever, swept to the Place Where Miniature Golf Balls Go.

No reprieves or reincarnation on my home course. Likewise no sex, drugs or rock & roll — at least not for me, an introverted nudnik in junior high stuck in a twosome with his little sister. But I went nearly every evening and putted away with zeal, probably because it offered escape from my parents. To a moody teen on summer furlough, trapped in the oppressive custody of his family, that equaled a vacation within the vacation.

The course fronted the boardwalk in Atlantic City and extended back along St. Charles Place, one of the medium-purple three on the Monopoly board between — this is the central metaphor of my life — Free Parking and Jail. Every summer we stayed on St. Charles Place at my great-aunt’s guest house, a stupendous four-story, porch-skirted beauty surrounded for blocks by equally grand mansions. In its heyday, when A.C. was America’s Playground (and not Vegas East) and Miss America was universally thought a fit model for young ladyhood (and not, as we now know her to be, a disingenuous, calculating white-bread bitch capable of smiling for hours with a straight face), the street was known as Millionaires’ Row.

The area’s second big entertainment mecca, the Globe Burlesque Theatre, was just across the street from the miniature course. Here, truly, was convenience fit for a millionaire: You could, on a cool seaside summer’s eve, zip up the block to the boardwalk, get in a healthy 18 miniature holes, purchase a gift-wrapped pound of James’s Cut-to-Fit-the-Mouth saltwater taffy and then take your taffy, and your mouth, into the Globe to watch Georgia Sothern or Rose LaRose or Blaze Starr prancing and peeling and gift-unwrapping their God-given bazooms.

But while the girls at the Globe were taking it off, I was getting it on; learning when to stroke to avoid the one deadly Ferris-wheel car with the hanging wooden flap; mastering the double-hump straightaway on two (par three); laughing with contempt at the easy-as-pie lighthouse on 13. The night sky above was always a hazy black. Towering arc lights lit the whole garden with a dazzling white-blue. My kid-size club tapped the candy-colored ball with a tasty little tick! and sent it rolling past red geraniums and along an emerald-green carpet toward a giant’s toys.

I know what you’re thinking: “Childhood memories are one thing. But today miniature golf is for wimps and pussies and couples with kids seeking Family Fun.

I agree. Ours is an era of high-octane pleasures — big money, big drugs, big electronics, big jadedness. Your moody adolescent boy has done it by 10th grade; next to the average teenage girl, Rose LaRose is Miss America.

Miniature golf simply has not kept pace. Those few courses left have been taken over by model-train types, the church bake-sale crowd, teetotaling Rotarians. I submit to you that we can and must seize it from their jello-molding hands and reclaim it for our own, because it is the most American game ever invented.

Every salient aspect of our national character finds a home on those teeny-tiny links: the yearning to commune with nature in pastoral retreat, yet also to punch nature in the nose and build a civilization in her face; the desire for outdoor open space, but also the craving to subdivide it into little Levittown-like preparceled lots; and the enduring need to squander staggering sums of money on machinery, gimmicks, little motorized models, turning lights, kitschy fountains and any other kind of fancy-shmancy “amazing” technological crap for the sheer overweening hell of it.

It’s a deplorably crude cultural profile, but it’s our deplorably crude cultural profile, and miniature golf is its highest expression. Surely any country able to waste billions on Star Wars defense systems can pony up a few million bucks to resale this sort-of sport. A couple of fiber-optical illusions here, some hologrammy award-winning effects there, and we can reinvent this noble yet silly game, halting forever its downward slide into terminal dorkiness.

Let us commence a model miniature-golf program, federally funded and staffed by geniuses. And let us build the first of such courses on the corner of St. Charles Place and the boardwalk — between Free Parking and Jail. The site is a rubble-strewn no man’s land. Years ago, everything standing for blocks — the Globe Burlesque, row after row of elegant four-story mansions and the miniature golf course — was smashed to pieces and carted away in dump trucks. I’d like to see the property developed the right way, complete with manicured geraniums, double-hump straightaway and fake waterfall.

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