The second bit of history about the most fun you can have with a ball and a stick
As promised, here is part two of a Putted History of Minigolf.
The American Boom
The builder of the first minigolf course in America was James Wells Barber, a shipping magnate from England who had settled in North Carolina. A keen golfer, he decided to build a miniature golf course at his Pinehurst residence for entertaining his numerous guests. Upon surveying the completed estate and 18-hole miniature golf course, he is said to have declared, “This’ll do.” His utterance was Scottishised either by himself or his entourage to ‘Thistle Dhu’, and it stuck. Thus Scotland, the home of golf, made its impression on the American minigolf industry right at its inception.
An article in the Altoona Mirror from March 6, 1928 gives this description of Thistle Dhu:
“North Carolina boasts of the world’s craziest, most scientific and most aggravating golf course which occupies a space no larger than a farmer’s back yard.
“It measures only 100 yards and approximately the same coming in. You can shoot all of the eighteen holes with a putter and a niblick [A niblick was a lofted iron, similar to a 9-iron, for getting out of bunkers]. The longest hole is 71 feet and the shortest is 13. But par is a thoroughly exasperating 41 and if you break 60 for the 18 holes on your first round you have a right to preen yourself.
“The Lilliputian links, which rejoices in the euphonic name of Thistle Dhu, is a golfing nightmare of natural and artificial hazards, perfectly designed slopes and curves whose dangers are generally well masked until the unsuspecting player is afoul of them. If it isn’t a tree trunk that must be missed by a bare two inches for a perfect approach to the hole, then the hazard is likely to be a pair of cement mounds, crescent-shaped, between which the ball must cut with geometrical precision to drop into the hole.”
The Thistle Dhu course record was 28 set by the course’s designer, Mr E.H. Wiswell, who knew the angles like nobody else.
Thistle Dhu was never open to the public, but became celebrated in the press thanks to the buzz it created amongst North Carolina’s social set. Among many others he showed his course off to, Barber invited two Canadian prime ministers and celebrity golfer Glenna Collet-Vare to play, and word spread about the miniature putting marvel.
Thistle Dhu was much talked about, but remained a novelty until 1927, when John Garnet Carter patented a version of the game he called Tom Thumb Golf. A brilliant salesman and promoter, he built the first course on Lookout Mountain in Georgia at the Fairyland Inn, a hotel he had built that was a sort of proto-Disneyland. In the following few years Garnet’s patented Tom Thumb Golf courses spread like wildfire. By the early 1930s there were thousands of them around the United States. The minigolf boom had begun.
Both Thistle Dhu and Garnet Carter’s courses were laid out in natural lawn areas with concrete sections added. Whilst Garnet Carter was growing his minigolf empire, another entrepreneurial soul called Thomas McCulloch Fairbairn had introduced a new putting surface designed specially for minigolf – a mixture of cottonseed hulls, sand, oil and dye. It was very smooth when trodden down, good for putting and colourful, and had the advantage of being applicable just about anywhere.
Fairbairn’s invention led to the rooftop minigolf craze. By the late 1920s there were over 150 rooftop minigolf courses in New York City alone, and tens of thousands across the United States.
But it all came back down to Earth with the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. By the end of the 1930s nearly all minigolf courses were history: closed and demolished or abandoned.
Most of the original courses from the American minigolf boom are gone now, and the few still in existence have a powerful spookiness about them. Urban explorers go out of their way for the creepy feel of an abandoned miniature golf course. Such places have entered folklore along with the wreck of the Titanic and abandoned amusement parks as ghostly elegies to unrevisitable times. With the superficial fun long gone and the paint on the clowns’ faces peeling away, something sinister lurks in these desolate places. The stuff of Stephen King novels. Brrrr.
In this video, an enthusiast explores a deserted minigolf park in Tennessee: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkn9O0NQ7DE
An article in Popular Science Monthly from November 1930 gives a vivid a glimpse into the history of the minigolf boom, not long before it all came crashing down. Called ‘Why Midget Golf Swept the Country’, it details how ‘Showmanship and mechanical art will decide the fate of America’s newest big industry – miniature golf … All these people are wondering how long this newest fad will last’. At its peak – close to the time the Popular Science Monthly article was published, minigolf had a million players, 25,000 courses and had seen an investment of $75 million – a huge amount in old money.
Fast forward to the present day, and minigolf is very much still around – in fact it’s going through a second heyday.
Rather than build crazy golf courses, we bring them to you. We deliver portable crazy golf for events and weddings. Interested? Then get in touch: