You've been looking up at the clouds. Now, look down, at a teeny-tiny ball and hit it through, and into, little holes, mounding and bounding in, out, and over artificial green grounds.
MINIATURE GOLF PARADISE
Fiery dragons and Tidy Bowl waterfalls are serious business in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Sunday, September 3, 2006
(09-03) 04:00 PDT Myrtle Beach, S.C. -- The volcano belching steam over my head was making it difficult to concentrate on the 13th hole, as was Don Ho crooning from the loudspeaker tucked into the palm trees.
Trying to keep my grip loose, I tapped my hot-pink ball, sending it caroming off a corner of fake lava rock and away from the hole -- a move that left me six strokes behind my 11-year-old son and 73-year-old dad, and with zero chance I'd make the list of the Hawaiian Rumble low-score golfers of the day.
At Hawaiian Rumble they take their miniature golf seriously -- well, as seriously as you can take any sport you perform while wearing a plastic lei. Which is to be expected, since Hawaiian Rumble is in the town of Myrtle Beach, S.C., self-proclaimed "Minigolf Capital of the World" and site of the ProMiniGolf Masters, to be held Oct. 19-22. (At press time, the little damage from Ernesto's winds and rain were not expected to change the date.)
Moreover, Hawaiian Rumble's owner, Bob Detwiler, is current president of the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association, an organization that -- despite the fact that the sport's version of Tiger Woods is a 10-year-old girl from the Czech Republic -- is mostly made up of grown-ups.
Miniature golf, that staple of family vacations, was invented as a game for grown-ups. In 1918, a wealthy shipping magnate named James Barber had a miniaturized golf course built on his property in Pinehurst, N.C., now the site of the U.S. Open of regular-sized golf. But it wasn't until 1926 that folks who weren't friends of Barber got a chance to try out the new sport. That's the year Frieda and Garnet Carter, owners of a Tennessee resort, constructed the first public course, assembling the obstacles out of leftover sewer pipe and decorating the grounds with Frieda's extensive collection of garden gnomes. The Carters' "Tom Thumb Golf" was such a success that the resort owners franchised the idea and shortly afterward were obliged to open a gnome factory in Chattanooga.
Along with flagpole sitting, mah-jongg and dance marathons, miniature golf became a popular craze of the 1920s. Courses sprang up all over the country, from rural roadsides to rooftops in Manhattan, and by 1930 America hosted between 30,000 and 50,000 of the Lilliputian links.
But the Great Depression put a damper on enthusiasm for hitting a bright-colored ball through the blades of a windmill, and within 10 years nearly all of those almost 50,000 courses had closed.
It wasn't until the arrival of the Baby Boom generation -- the population responsible for Disneyland and McDonalds -- that miniature golf made its comeback, this time as a family affair. By the end of the 1950s, America's highways were teeming with station wagons filled with restless kids and desperate parents, who were only too happy to pull over and spend an hour whacking a little ball around.
It's not hard to see why the notion of miniature golf as family entertainment has stuck around. What other sport would appeal equally to an 11-year-old boy, a 73-year-old man and somebody indeterminately in the middle? More to the point, what other sport would offer all three of them a level -- if artificially turfed -- playing field?
True aficionados know there's no better place to pursue a passion for putt-putt than Myrtle Beach, the strip of South Carolina oceanfront that locals have dubbed the Redneck Riviera.
Myrtle Beach possesses something in the neighborhood of 50 miniature golf courses. With competition like that, the designers of these pint-sized links have to go beyond sewer pipes and garden gnomes. Way beyond. Which explains why it's impossible to drive the stretch of Highway 17 that comprises Myrtle Beach's main artery without passing whole armadas of sunken pirate ships and herds of spouting elephants.
With only a week in town, we didn't have time to play all 50 (not that my son, Alex, didn't want to try), so we picked the top three as rated by the local Sun News "Best of the Beach" poll. Hawaiian Rumble came in at No. 3.
The Hawaiian Rumble course is a far cry from the flat, fake rock-strewn plots I grew up with. It's hilly, covered with palm trees and hibiscus bushes, and cooled by waterfalls colored Tidy Bowl blue. There's also a partially submerged killer whale and, of course, the 40-foot volcano.
Having managed to maintain my six-stroke lag (an only moderately embarrassing spread), I approached the dreaded 16th hole. This hole is feared even among the pros who come to Hawaiian Rumble to play the Minigolf Masters because of the grading that makes the ball break to the left, and the rise that can send it rolling back to your sneakers.
In a fit of boldness -- and because he is 11 -- Alex offered to take the first shot. Undistracted by the sounds of slack-key guitar drifting from the trees, which made me wish mightily for a mai tai, he counted to 13 -- his good luck mantra -- and putted, sending his ball near enough to the hole to be nonchalantly swept into the cup for a two. My dad, who uses his club as a cane between holes, also conquered the notorious 16th in two.
Now it was my turn. I kept my head down, counted to 13 -- just in case, and pulled back my club. But the moment I made contact, flames erupted from the top of the volcano and my ball sailed off the green and into a hibiscus bush. I finished the day 12 strokes behind.
The next day we assembled at Dragon's Lair Fantasy Golf. Dragon's Lair was voted No. 1 in the "Best of the Beach" poll and features both a replica of a Viking ship and a life-sized (if in fact it had ever been alive), fire-breathing dragon.
"Fantasy Golf" means you're encouraged to forget you're standing around in 85-degree heat in a pair of shorts, and pretend you're deep in the heart of Olde England during the days of King Arthur. To assist you with this, the rules on your scorecard are written in the type of script most commonly found on the menus of British pub-style restaurants and say such things as, "Should thy ball go out of bounds, replace it where it went out and give thyself a one stroke penalty." This, and the fact that the course is laid out around the turrets and ramparts of a not unrealistic-looking castle, makes Dragon's Lair irresistible to any kid who has ever opened a Harry Potter book.
The same pub-style script is found on the signs, located at every hole, that tell the story of the village of Myrtleness. As we moved through the course, I decided that the signs were meant to give players something to do while their fellow golfers putted. However, since Alex and my dad never seemed to go over par, I got only a vague notion of the tale. The two of them, on the other hand, had plenty of time to absorb all the story's nuances.
Near the 13th hole, we were greeted by peals of deranged laughter -- the laugh track of an animatronic jester seated on the castle wall, splitting a seam at his own jokes.
"Know why spiders were always ahead of their time?" the 4-foot-tall jester asked between guffaws. "Because they had Web sites!"
"I'll just take my six-stroke limit," I told Alex and my dad, then hurried off to the 17th.
Despite the jester and the overwrought medieval music (something akin to Camelot meets Lord of the Rings), the Dragon's Lair is a very cool place to play miniature golf. The hole beneath the smoking turret has a door that pulls against its hinges in a creepy way, the Viking ship really is floating on water and every half-hour a dragon with a head the size of a Mini Cooper wakes up and spits fire.
Mount Atlanticus may have come in second in the Sun News poll, but it was No. 1 on my scorecard. What's not to love about a miniature golf course that claims to be a piece of the lost continent of Atlantis and makes you feel as if you've entered a world where it might just be possible to sight an enormous-headed alien, or Elvis in white lamé?
The first hole at Mount Atlanticus is played in a room where the walls are painted with flying saucers, dodo birds and a rendering of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, in which God is depicted with the blow-dried hair and half-unbuttoned shirt of a lounge lizard.
There are two courses at Mount Atlanticus, the Minotaur Goff and the Conch. We played the Minotaur Goff, mostly because it sounded weirder. We made our way around the course by following a trail of tiny footprints pressed into the pavement (made by miniature Atlantians?) This led us to a series of greens full of dips and rises, most with the holes hidden around corners or on another level entirely.
Mount Atlanticus has no boring holes. At one, Alex watched as his ball traveled through six separate tunnels before being dumped out 3 inches from the cup. At another, we climbed a circular staircase to the tee, located in a tiki hut so high up that we had a view of the ocean -- from which, according to the scorecard, this particular piece of Atlantis drifted to shore.
Mount Atlanticus has a monsoon's worth of blue-tinted water spilling over its three levels. And the grounds are thick with palm trees, thatched palapas and plenty of benches -- a fact greatly appreciated by my dad, whose personal criteria for rating miniature golf courses includes the number of opportunities to sit in the shade.
In the end, Alex and my dad tied. I lost. But only by a few strokes -- so few, in fact, that I couldn't help but remember that the World Minigolf Federation has made some progress toward getting miniature golf admitted to the World Games, a precursor to the Olympics
It is, after all, a sport for anybody.