Is golf a ‘long walk ruined?’ Mark Twain certainty thought so at least until he encountered ‘British style’ mini golf. He became enchanted with it and played many long games with his good friend Woodrow Wilson, before he was president of the United States. But where did mini golf come from, and what is the new craze known as ‘Adventure golf’?
The oldest mini golf course can be found in St. Andrews, Scotland. The Ladies’ Putting Club was formed there in 1867 as a member’s only club for upper class women, in which they could play a game called Pitch and Putt. Interestingly, whilst women were permitted to play this sport as it was seen as ‘suave’ and fashionable, they were not permitted to ‘take the club back past the shoulders’ as this was seen as vulgar. The craze quickly caught on in Britain, however, it wasn’t until 1916 when it began to capture the hearts and minds of America. In 1916 James Barber designed the first ‘mini golf’ course which inspired a whole new craze in America. Soon innovative designers were creating miniature golf courses everywhere. In 1926 a course was designed on the roof of a New York City skyscraper. By the end of the 1920s there were 150 rooftop courses in New York alone.
Despite the depression of the 1930s the mini golf craze survived and thrived. Many miniature golf pitch and putts were closed down as they were too expensive to maintain however in their place ‘rinkie- dink’ courses sprung up. These courses were made up with whatever rubbish people found lying around including old tyres, pipes and gutters. Eventually the ‘crazy’ obstacles’ popularity made them a regular feature in US mini golf courses. Thus ‘crazy golf’ was born. By the end of the 1930s it was estimated in America alone that four million people were playing crazy golf.
But why was it so popular? With the arrival of the Depression, shanty towns called ‘Hoovervilles’ started appearing. The average income of an American family dropped by 40% between 1929- 1932. Therefore crazy golf came at an opportune time as it spoke into the feelings of uncertainty and discomfort many Americans felt by bringing some light relief. Additionally, crazy golf was a ‘sport’ that was classless, it could be played by people of all social rank meaning it connected with a vast audience.
However, the crazy golf dream wasn’t sustainable, and by the 1970s, the game had lost virtually all popularity. This sounds like a sad ending to a story that had once brought people facing hard times much joy yet recently crazy golf has made a major comeback. Towards the end of the 1990s a new craze began known as ‘Adventure golf’ or ‘country- club’ mini golf courses. This revival was partly due to interest of well-known celebrities such as Jack Nicklaus. Soon crazy golf competitions began to spring up all over the world including Australia, Germany, the US and the UK, and many international competitors are held every year, including the British finals held in Hastings every October.
So is crazy golf a long walk spoiled as Twain argued? In short, definitely not! The evolution of mini golf is one that largely reflects the public mood, aspirations and concerns of the day. How incredible that such a humble sport supported the liberation of women, was a sport of decadence in the 1920s and finally a sport that helped people through the Depression. I know I’ll never look at a miniature motorized windmill on a green the same way again.