When Putt-Putt Is King

By Randy Gaddo

The story of mini-golf started—as many good golf stories do—in Scotland, back in the middle-1800s, when it wasn’t considered proper for a lady to swing a club back past her shoulder. This compressed swing, and thus shorter drives, necessitated shorter courses.

So miniature-golf courses were designed—much like their regulation predecessors—with hills, sand traps, ponds, and trees. The courses didn’t include windmills, pirate ships, exotic animal statues, and castles like today’s courses; well, maybe castles—it was, after all, Scotland. However, the diminutive links had plenty of naturally occurring features to make the game more interesting for the ladies. This concept eventually led to the mini-golf game we know today.

Once For The Elite
Modern mini-golf—aka putt-putt—began in 1916 when James Barber, owner of Barber Steamship Lines, built an 18-hole “Lilliputian” golf course at his home in Pinehurst, N.C. Reportedly, when he saw the course, he said, “This’ll do,” and the name “Thistle Dhu” stuck. The venerable putting course still exists at the renowned Pinehurst Resort and Country Club.

Innovative designers then began to create the miniature courses on rooftops of skyscrapers; other buildings followed, and before long the courses came back to earth, showing up as private and public facilities.

During the Great Depression, when regular mini-golf became too expensive for most people, makeshift courses began popping up. Made from scrounged objects and materials, each course was unique and could include tires, rain gutters, car parts, pipes, and whatever else people could find to make the shortened courses more interesting.

The game took a new twist in the 1930s when somebody capitalized on the idea of the rinky-dink courses and began building innovative ones using similar hazards as on the Depression-era links. By the end of that decade, an estimated 4-million people in the U.S. were playing miniature golf.

Then, in the 1950s, the game became a more serious sport. Today, in addition to the millions who play just for fun, there are a few who work at it; there is a World Mini Golf Sports Association and U.S. Pro Mini Golf Association. It may even one day become an Olympic event.

 What today’s mini-links have in common with those previous courses is that they all require some ongoing maintenance.

Because of their increased popularity, many new and renovated courses fall under the care of parks and rec departments. Maintaining a mini-golf course can be much different than maintaining parks and ball fields. In some cases, the courses weren’t part of the original inventory but were privately owned facilities that were “turned over” to the local government.

Seasonal Entertainment
Bob Moews is the Superintendent of Bloomington, Ill., parks and rec facilities. One of those facilities is an 18-hole, lighted mini-golf course open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. It has an array of special maintenance requirements, including ponds with fish, a creek with a waterfall, bridges, various grass gardens, and more.

Moews explains that the course was owned privately, and the city took it over to redesign and upgrade in 2007.  “The new course was designed by in-house staff, including a horticulturist, who still inspects the course about three times a week,” explains Moews.

Rather than have unusual structures like castles or windmills, the course in the middle of 68-acre Miller Park is designed around nature, with lots of stones, grasses, trees, and other elements that make it challenging, but soothing.  Miller Park was Bloomington’s first public park and now includes a zoo, war memorials, a 100-year-old activity pavilion, an 11-acre lake, a new playground, and a water park.

With all that to offer, the self-supporting mini-golf course gets constant use during its open season. However, in spite of that, Moews says that maintenance of the course is relatively easy.

“We do daily litter pickup, trash hauling, and cleaning restrooms with our in-house maintenance crew,” he explains. But there are many different grasses, shrubs, trees, and landscape features that require special handling. “When crews are working at the park, they are under the guidance of the staff horticulturist, who directs them on landscaping items specific to the golf course.”

Some maintenance functions are better handled by contracted service providers. For example, the carpet on the mini-course hasn’t been upgraded since 2007. “We are working on replacing that now,” Moews says.  “We will contract that out though because our crew is not familiar with the proper way to take up the old carpet and lay down new, so we’ll leave that to the experts.”

Because of frigid winter temperatures and snow and ice, the course is closed for the winter. This requires the maintenance crew to properly winterize the course to prevent freezing or water damage.

“We winterize restrooms and the water pumping systems and take down canvas canopies and other materials that can be damaged by exposure to the elements,” he says. Minimal maintenance is required during the off season. The course is enclosed by an eight-foot wrought-iron fence with a locked gate, so vandalism is not a major problem for the crew.

Year-Round Maintenance
The operators of the three—yes, three—18-hole mini-courses at Sherman Oaks Castle Park in Los Angeles don’t have to worry about winterizing; their courses are open 365 days a year.

One might think that would be cause for consternation, but the operations manager for the park sees it as “part of the job.”

“We’re lucky,” says Dave Koeper, who has been operations manager at Sherman Oaks for two-and-a-half years.  “We have lots of sun. We put our maintenance crews out early at 6 a.m. so they can get a lot of work done before we open at 10 a.m.” They can get the heavy work done before the temperature gets too hot and without the disruption of customers using the course.

The three courses stand in stark contrast to the conservative course in Bloomington, and not only because Sherman Oaks has 66 percent more holes.

Where Bloomington is a local fun attraction, Castle Rock serves a regional audience in the entire San Fernando Valley. “We are one of only a few mini-golf facilities in the valley, so we actually draw a larger crowd from the surrounding areas,” says Koeper. “It is popular for some people for the nostalgia because they remember playing when they were kids. They bring their kids, and it becomes a family experience. The kids also enjoy the arcade, which is right next door.”

Castle Rock has many structures on the three courses. “There are different themes throughout the courses with no real rhyme or reason,” says Koeper. “We have volcanos, Tiki gods, lighthouses, and lots of other structures, most of them older, made of plaster, or some are wood. There are issues.”

The Sherman Oaks community was founded in 1927, and one assumes the park land has been there almost as long. The mini-golf course, like the one in Bloomington, was once a privately owned facility. Formerly the Malibu Family Fun Center on land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, the facility was turned over to the city when the previous owners couldn’t come to an agreement on rental rates with the Corps.

Most of the course’s structures are from the original build. Over time, the plaster has been chipped away by the elements and by players who accidentally (or not) hit the plaster with clubs. The wood has been stressed by time and the elements, intensified by the heat and humidity of L.A. summers. From a maintenance standpoint, it has to be a challenge.

Adding to the challenge is that the course is self-sustaining, with revenue being split 50/50 with the city. Employees’ salaries, including a full-time senior gardener who directs eight to 10 part-time maintenance staff members, are paid from the park’s half of the split, as are basic maintenance items, such as the replacement of outdoor carpet on the course.

Koeper notes that the facility recently tried to obtain grant funding from a California program, but were unsuccessful.  “We wanted to do a major overhaul of the facility,” he says. “There has never been an upgrade. So now we will try to get in-house assistance to improve items such as concrete walkways that are breaking up and structures that need repairs.”

For some of the larger projects, Koeper can coordinate with the city’s construction division to obtain assistance.

Having three courses does give Koeper the luxury of being able to close sections or even entire courses for maintenance, while still being able to provide services. For example, in November was the annual painting project, where the crews paint all of the concrete, railings, and buildings. “We can close one of the courses while we paint it during the day, and open it back up for the evening, as long as we give the paint a couple of hours to dry,” Koeper says.

Family Fun
History often repeats itself, and that pronouncement may be proven by renewed interest in a sport born, bred, and nurtured on the links in Scotland long ago. People are more and more seeking economical, fun, family activities, and mini-golf fits that need.

Historic figures who invented the game probably had their own set of maintenance issues to deal with; everything, after all, requires maintenance. However, modern maintenance professionals with mini-golf courses in their inventory may be dealing with a set of requirements that falls outside the normal scope of passive parks, ball fields, and recreation facilities.

So the best resources are other parks and rec professionals who do have experience and tales to tell. If you are one of those people with something to share, this is the place to do it. Let the editor or me know what you have to share, and we’ll get it out to others who may need it.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He earned his master’s degree in Public Administration and is now a full-time photojournalist living in Bay Minette, Ala. Reach him at (678) 350-8642 or cwo4usmc@comcast.net.