- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

At Jefferson District minia- ture golf course in Falls Church, Amy Buckles lines up her golf ball on the first hole and takes aim. The 17-year-old rising senior at Annandale High School then swings her golf club toward the hole 20 feet away but knocks the ball off the green and sends it spiraling into the parking lot, where it bounces into a parked car.

The car isn’t damaged, but Amy’s pride is dented, though she takes delight in the experience.

“I’m pretty bad,” Amy says with a laugh. “You can be really bad at miniature golf, but it’s still fun.”

Fun is what miniature golf is all about. In the Washington area, nearly two dozen miniature golf courses have mushroomed in the past 15 years. During a prime summer week, more than 35,000 people take to miniature golf courses in the area. Since the 1920s, the pastime has filled a niche for Americans who wanted either a fun place to go on a date, a wholesome place to take their youngsters or a way to compete and have fun with friends.

Some people play once a season. Others play as often as they can.

“We’ve got plenty of regulars that come,” says Mike Paul, owner of Golfzilla Miniature Golf course in Temple Hills, which has about 100 players a day during the week and more than twice as many on weekends.

“We’ve got families that come out every week, with parents bringing their children out to play. And dads come all day on the weekends, baby-sitting their kids. Friday night is date night, with high school and college-age kids coming down with their girlfriends.”

At Jefferson Mini Golf, Amy and her friend Katie Payne, also a rising senior at Annandale High School, say they try to play mini golf once a week. “It’s fun, and it’s something to do because there’s nothing to do in ‘Actiondale,’” says Katie, referring ironically to Annandale.

The two teenagers also like the natural environment that is built into the course at the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Jefferson course. The course is centered on a waterfall, with ponds, streams, exotic plants and palm trees placed throughout the playing area, which are a feast for the eyes.

Amy’s favorite hole is No. 6, which is surrounded by a water-filled moat, accessed only by a wooden bridge. People seem to enjoy fishing their balls out of the water at various holes on the course.

Tom Lizardo, a senior at Oakton High School, likes the Jefferson course for its diversity and its natural environment. He especially likes hole 14, where players tap their ball into a 30-foot-long stream, which carries the ball to the hole.

Mini golf “is more for fun,” says Tom, who also plays regular golf. “Regular golf is more in depth.”

• • •

Jefferson’s course, with a mix of young singles and families playing each night, reflects the way miniature golf has evolved in style from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. In those years, Putt-Putt franchise courses, with their signature orange-and-white logo on barriers and on the wooden borders of the greens, were so in vogue that miniature golf was referred to generically as “putt-putt.”

Today the term “putt-putt” shares currency with “mini golf,” reflecting the significant increase in competition Putt-Putt has faced from other miniature-golf companies since the mid-1980s. Today Putt-Putt franchises across the country, which numbered 230 as recently as 1997, according to Franchise Times, are down to 125 courses. The Washington area, which used to boast Putt-Putt courses in Alexandria, Arlington and Rockville, now has none closer than Frederick.

Putt-Putt courses are replete with features — such as windmills or minibarns with swinging doors — that can test a player’s skill. Yet they focus on simply putting. Newer courses, by contrast, emphasize entertainment, in the form of either elaborate landscaping — with waterfalls, water courses and exotic plants — or themed gimmicks that can draw in a player — fantasy figures such as Little Red Riding Hood or representations of sharks, gorillas or frogs at which the players aim.

Steve Hix, executive coordinator of the Miniature Golf Association, which represents 500 of the estimated 7,000 miniature golf course in the United States, says miniature golf styles have gelled.

“On one end, you have the landscape courses,” says Mr. Hix, who is based in San Antonio. “They use landscaping and hydraulic features, waterfalls and streams, with absolutely no gags.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Hix says, courses are highly themed and have a consistent story line, whether it’s an “around-the-world” theme that deploys statues reflecting foreign cultures or a “pirate” theme with ships or related characters. The point, he says, is to make players feel that they’re having an unusual experience.

• • •

Miniature golf players who try Perils of the Lost Jungle at Woody’s near Sterling, Va., know they’re in for such an experience. Woody’s makes players feel as though they have entered a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” film.

The course is built as part of a driving range and a batting-cage center. This has been standard since the mid-1980s, when mini golf operators realized they could draw more players by having a “family center” that consisted of batting cages, a driving range or, in some cases, a swimming pool or even a go-cart track. In fact, starting in 2004, Putt-Putt will begin including what it calls Family Fun Centers in its franchises.

The course at Woody’s is designed with thick foliage that gives the player the feeling of being in a jungle; clouds of mist filter from hidden sources and cover part of the mazelike course. The sounds of beating drums, monkeys and wild birds also fill the air.

“It’s pretty cool,” says Alex Covington, a freshman at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. “It’s really extravagant and really well done. On one hole,” he says of the hole where “poisonous” frogs spray water, “you get squirted with water. You get kind of wet but not too entirely wet.”

His friend, Amy Mangrich, who will be a senior at Balboa Academy in Panama City, also likes the course. “It takes you by surprise,” she says. “It’s different. They have a lot of little humps here and there that are hard to see, so I’m not having a good game, but it’s still fun.”

Mr. Covington was amazed at the change in the course since his last visit several years ago. The course, he says, had no theme then.

General manager Darren Shaw says the course was redone two years ago and attracts about 3,000 to 4,000 players on a good summer week.

“We’re more like a Myrtle Beach [S.C.] kind of course,” Mr. Shaw says, referring to courses that feature fantasy figures or interacting mechanical animals. “Putting is a sideline. The biggest thing with us is the animatronics. Ours is more of a fun thing.”

Mr. Shaw points out that the course’s signature hole is No. 17, which contains a mechanical alligator that “attacks” players by spraying them with water. Players shriek in delight as they get sprayed.

“I’m soaked,” says Christine Salama, an American who lives in Damman, Saudi Arabia, and comes to the course once a year when her family vacations in the area. “They’ve got a hole where [water] came at you from four directions so you couldn’t really avoid it.”

Mr. Shaw estimates that the course hosts about 20 birthday parties a week, usually in the evenings or on weekends. “People are looking for something a little more interactive over the last two years,” he says. “Everything is getting more entertainment-based, and that’s where we’ve gone with it.”

• • •

Zach Harrison, a 13-year-old McLean resident, prefers Upton Hill Regional Park in Arlington, one of six courses run by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.

“This is a really neat course,” says Zach, who played three times in one week this month, once at Woody’s and twice at the Upton.

Upton, located off Wilson Boulevard near Seven Corners in Arlington, has a terraced, landscaped course on a hill with waterfalls, streams and water reeds and other exotic plants.

Zach, who plays regular golf, scored four holes-in-one during his last trip to Upton. Mini golf and regular golf, he says, “are both about the same in fun.”

Whitt Harrison, Zach’s 10-year-old brother, also knocked in a hole-in-one and likes complicated holes with barriers and detours. “It’s fun,” he says.

His mom, Kay, says the family has a friendly rivalry, and she likes being outdoors with her children. “It’s fun, and it’s actually doing something rather than playing video games,” she says.

“The kids love it,” says David Harrison, her husband. “It’s a world of fun.”

Heather McPhail, a 43-year-old Arlington resident, also likes mini golf because it gives her family something to do together outdoors.

“We were swimming and picnicking, and we thought we’d play [miniature] golf,” she says, adding that her children, Calvin, 10, and Emma, 6, don’t compete with each other or their father, John, a lawyer. “It’s fun watching the kids and seeing their different styles of action on the course,” Heather adds.

Stephanie Malin, a 19-year-old George Mason student, and Derrick Santos, a 20-year old architectural student at Northern Virginia Community College, like the natural scenery at Upton as well, especially the water running through the course. The two decided to come to the course after a dinner date. The last time they played at Upton, they were rained out and received a rain check, so they were enjoying a balmy night on the course.

The two could not decide which hole was the most difficult — but they did agree that playing is fun and that they’ll return to play again.

• • •

East Potomac Mini Golf at Hains Point in the District is the oldest operating miniature golf course in the area and probably the country, the managers say. The course was built in 1931 during a mini-golf craze.

In fact, some 25,000 miniature-golf courses were operating by 1930 in the United States. However, by the end of 1931, the boom in mini golf fizzled because of the Great Depression, and the pastime did not flourish again until after World War II.

From the beginning, miniature golf tried to imitate regular golf, offering an 18-hole course that has remained standard over the years. Miniature golf is different, though: Not only is it played on a small course, but players don’t tee off as they do in regular golf. Moreover, putting on its artificial turf is much faster than putting on grass. In fact, Americans love miniature golf not so much because it resembles regular golf but because it has its own zany characteristics.

Garnet Carter was the first entrepreneur to start a franchise, after he built a course as part of his resort on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee in 1926. Carter built the course as an attraction to children, but instead, adult players were drawn to the course with its representations of Little Red Riding Hood and other fantasy figures.

Carter soon launched a franchise that was called Tom Thumb Golf and triggered a mass interest in the pastime that was referred to as “the madness of 1930.”

At East Potomac, the course is, indeed, a throwback to the past. Its greens contain thick concrete borders that are nearly 6 inches wide, and each hole features stone structures, such as a castle tower and small houses, that recall a time when materials were less expensive. Now they exude a sense of history. Stones also border several ponds that are filled with lily pads and other plants.

The course is located just across the Washington Harbor from the Capital Yacht Club and restaurants on Water Street SW such as Phillips Flagship and Hogate’s. The area offers a postcard view of the restaurants and numerous yachts and boats in the boat basin across the channel. The course is situated in such a way that in the evening, players can watch the sunset and feel a brisk breeze blow pleasantly off the Potomac.

The course is a challenging one, with many bank shots, along with long greens that contain holes on different levels. For example, on some greens, players hit their balls through a series of holes and obstacles that take the balls to different levels before reaching the final hole.

“If you were playing seriously, you’d be frustrated,” says Clare Fischer, a restaurant server who lives in the District. “But if you’re out to have a good time, it’s just fun.”

“A lot of the holes start with severe uphills,” says Tom Woodman, Miss Fischer’s date, who is also a restaurant server and an Arlington resident. “Of course, if you’re trying to finesse it, the ball will come right back to your feet.”

Manager Mike Byrd, who is the golf pro at the regular 18-hole course adjacent to the course, agrees that some of the holes are difficult. In fact, there is one hole where no one has achieved a hole-in-one. Another hole is difficult enough that just two of 75 regular golfers who tried during a tournament several years ago sank holes-in-one. The two winners received five free passes to the regular golf course.

Mr. Byrd also says hole 17 is the most fun. Players hit up over a bridge and then over a flat to get to the hole.

“I have seen holes-in-one on that one,” he says.

Mr. Byrd adds that office workers or people attending conferences in Washington will sneak over and grab a hot dog and play a round of mini golf before they have to go back to work. He gets a kick out of that.

Mr. Woodman and Miss Fischer decided to play East Potomac because she has only just begun to play regular golf and he has played for some time. They also play once a month.

“It’s much less walking, cheaper and quicker,” Mr. Woodman says.

• • •

Rocky Gorge Miniature Golf Course in Laurel boasts the world’s longest mini-golf hole, 200 feet on hole 19. Despite being so long, the hole is still a par 2. Rocky Gorge brings in about 300 people a day, drawn to the varied motifs of its hazards. The course has a green with a singing cowboy, another with “Needles,” the singing pine tree and a wishing well.

“It has got everything from caves to waterfalls to trains,” says night manger Rob Anderson.

“Mini golf spiked up about five years ago,” Mr. Anderson says. “Probably because more people play golf and practice at the driving range.”

Like rock ‘n’ roll, mini golf will continue to flourish in American culture.

Where to play

WHAT: Cameron Run Regional Park Mini-Golf

WHERE: 4001 Eisenhower Ave., Alexandria

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday

ADMISSION: Adults $5, juniors and seniors $4

INFORMATION: 703/960-0767

WHAT: East Potomac Mini-Golf

WHERE: East Potomac Park at Hains Point, 972 Ohio Drive SW.

WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

ADMISSION: $4.50

INFORMATION: 202/488-8087, Ext. 26 or www.golfdc.com

WHAT: Golfzilla Mini-Golf

WHERE: 3601 Brinkley Road, Temple Hills

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

ADMISSION: Adults $4, children 10 and younger $3

INFORMATION: 301/630-4653

WHAT: Rocky Gorge Miniature Golf Course

WHERE: U.S. Route 29 at 8445 Old Columbia Road, Laurel

WHEN: 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily

ADMISSION: $6

INFORMATION: 301/725-0888 or www.rockygorgegolf.com

WHAT: Upton Hill Regional Park Mini-Golf

WHERE: 6060 Wilson Blvd., Arlington

WHEN: Summer hours 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

ADMISSION: Adults $5, juniors and seniors $4. Replay $2. Group rates $2.75.

INFORMATION: 703/534-3437

WHAT: Woody’s Golf Range

WHERE: 11801 Leesburg Pike, Herndon

WHEN: 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily

ADMISSION: Adults $8, children 12 and under $6.50.

INFORMATION: 703/430-8338 or www.woodysgolf.com

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