This story is being reprinted from the 2005 U.S. Open Web site.
By Kevin McManemin, USGA
Far Hills, N.J. - James W. Barber, president of Barber Steamship Lines, known in ports the world over as 'the Dean of American Shipping,' came to Pinehurst Village in 1917 with an idea. With the help of Edward Wiswell, described by contemporaries as "an amateur architect of fiendish ingenuity," Barber brought his idea to life in the garden behind his Pinehurst estate.
What if you took golf, but made it…smaller?
What if you reduced the size of each hole from 400-odd yards to, say, four? What if you replaced the doglegs and bunkers with curves and obstacles, the array of clubs with a simple putter, and the afternoon-long rounds with games that would be over before real golfers made it to the third tee?
The answer, Barber found, was an addictively fun game that could be played cheaply, quickly and repeatedly by people of all ages.
Upon its completion in 1918, Barber's Lilliputian Golf Course went down in history as the country's first miniature golf course. "Garden golf" became a quick hit with friends and neighbors, and Barber soon found himself running tournaments for locals.
And so, Pinehurst, N.C., not only has the honor of being one of the oldest hotbeds of golf in the country; it also serves as the birthplace of golf's little brother.
The Game Grows
Locked away in Barber's private estate in Pinehurst, the game had little chance of catching on with a wider audience. For mini-golf to reach the national consciousness, it would take the efforts of Frieda and Garnet Carter of Lookout Mountain, Tenn., who in 1926 created their own ‘Tom Thumb' mini-golf course. It was here that Frieda Carter's lifelong interest in European folklore gave mini-golf the distinct character it still exhibits today. Frieda decorated the course with fairytale themes, statues of gnomes and elves, and an air of whimsy and innocence.
Mini-golf became, in short, a kid's game.
America fell in love with mini-golf. The game joined flagpole sitting, the Charleston, jazz music and rum-running as the latest 1920s craze. By 1930, there were an estimated 30,000-50,000 mini-golf courses around the country, a quarter of which were Carter-brand creations (Garnet Carter had wisely patented his course designs, and sold pre-fabricated sets to aspiring course operators). Manhattan alone soon boasted 150 hugely-successful rooftop courses.
When the first National Tom Thumb Open was held in 1930 at Lookout Mountain, first prize was a princely $2,000 – twice the first prize of the U.S. Open at the time.
But as quickly as money flowed into the burgeoning sport, it evaporated once the Great Depression turned American attentions and pocket books away from gnome-themed putting games. In 1931 the mini-golf bubble burst, and course after course closed in quick succession. By the 1940s, miniature golf was almost completely erased from the American landscape. It seemed destined to go down in history as nothing more than another silly ‘Roaring Twenties' fad.
The game rebounded in the 1950s and 60s, this time as a resort-area, family-fun amusement. Here the game took on the form most recognize today, complete with whirling blades, moving mechanical statuary and cleverly-constructed, multi-tiered holes. Themed courses had players putting amongst Sphinxes, pirate ships, teepees, T-Rexes, superheroes, national monuments, volcanoes, lions, lighthouses, and of course, windmills.
Lots of windmills.
The game is now virtually a staple of American childhood; it remains an activity that adults can actually enjoy as well. It is estimated that Americans play more than 500 million rounds of mini-golf a year, making this little game very big business indeed.
Enter The Professionals
Today, the game Barber pioneered at Pinehurst is called many things – Crazy Golf, Putt-Putt Golf, Goofy Golf and Adventure Golf among them.
Call miniature golf a ‘kid's game,' though, and you'll face the wrath of today's avid professional mini-golfers.
Yes, while their efforts go mostly unnoted in the U.S., there is a devoted international miniature golf community. There are world rankings for the top players, and professional tournaments that garner ESPN coverage and give top prizes in the thousands of dollars. There is an international governing body – the World MiniGolfSport Federation – which sets rules for play and standardizes course designs.
On these five WMF-approved layouts, (named Beton, Eternit, Swedish Felt, Cobigolf and Stargolf, for those curious) you'll find no pirate-ship-pendulums or hit-the-ball-in-the-clown's-mouth gimmicks. These stripped down pro layouts emphasize shot-making, mental acuity and skillful execution.
The top players have equipment so high-tech and specialized it makes the contents of regular golfers' bags look like historical relics. Today's avid mini-golfers have putters with heads that rotate 360 degrees, allowing players to maneuver around tough obstacles. They have specially-made balls, which vary in size, weight, bounce, and hardness, and are chilled in portable refrigerators to ensure optimum performance at game time. In some game formats, it is common for serious players to use a different kind of ball on every single hole in order to make use of each ball's unique characteristics.
While miniature golf is still largely viewed as a vacation-area amusement or a kid's game in the U.S. and the U.K., in other parts of the world the game has a broader, older and more fanatical clientele. Central Europe is the undisputed hotbed of serious mini-golf today, and Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic supply the lion's share of the world's best players.
In Germany alone, tax records count more than 5,000 mini-golf courses (by contrast, the European Golf Union tallies only 648 full-length golf courses in the country. In Germany at least, golf's little brother has outstripped golf itself in popularity). A recent TV news magazine poll showed mini-golf as the ninth most popular leisure activity among Germans.
Legacy Lives On
Barber's mansion ‘Thistle Dhu' still stands in Pinehurst village, though the Lilliputian course is long gone.
When James Barber set out his ‘garden golf' course so many years ago, it's unlikely he ever would have imagined that nearly a century later ruddy-faced Bavarians would be playing the game with precision instruments and Teutonic sternness, putting for serious Euros in professional tournaments. But it's a testament to the fun and challenge of the game that it has continued to delight so many for so long.
Next time you find yourself trying to putt a ball through a chomping triceratops mouth, down a pipe, through a fiberglass cave and artificial waterfall, up a ramp, past the plastic palm trees and toward the hole, perhaps you can spare a thought for Barber, Wiswell and the game – no, sport – birthed in a Pinehurst backyard.