Updated: Feb 6, 2020
The origins of golf can be traced back to the ancient Roman game named paganica. Players would use a bent stick to hit a stuffed leather ball. As the Romans expanded their empire across Europe, the paganica spread along with it. The first written record of the modern game of golf is when James II banned golf in 1457 because it distracted Scottish soldiers from practicing archery. The ban on golf was lifted after the Treaty of Glasgow was signed between England and Scotland in 1502. James IV made the first recorded purchase of golf equipment, which was a set of clubs from a bow-maker in Perth, Scotland. The Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland is considered to be the oldest golf course in the world and is nicknamed “The Home of Golf”, with evidence of golf being played there from as early as 1574. The standard 18 hole golf course was built at St. Andrews in 1764, it was actually a 22 hole course before that.
In the 1800’s, caddies at St. Andrews created a small putting area where they would practice while waiting for a golfer that needed their services. When women would come with their husbands, fathers, or brothers to their golf course, they would get bored waiting for the men to get back from golfing so they would go putt around on the caddie’s practice course. Women weren’t allowed to play golf because they were too delicate and too modest to swing a club past their shoulders, but they could putt. The caddies started to become annoyed with the women taking over their putting area, so the owner of St. Andrews dedicated an area that the women could play, a piece of land away from the public eye where local women would dry clothes. The land was rough a covered in rabbit holes. A nine-hole course was laid out, or miniature links that would only require a cleek (closest to a modern 4) and a putter. The St. Andrews Ladies’ Golf Club was then formed in 1867.
Besides all of the rabbit holes, the main obstacle that the women had to play around was the fisherman’s path that flooded quite often. Planks were laid over the path so that the women could play when it did flood. The Ladies’ Golf Club held their first competition in 1867. The first-place prize was a gold locket and the second-place prize was a silver pebble brooch. By 1900, the ladies’ club had 400 members and there was now a gentleman’s miniature links club with 200 members.
James Wells Barber was an Englishman who moved to the United States in 1887 and was an avid golfer. He spent most of his time at Pinehurst in North Carolina, which was one of America’s most prestigious golfing resorts. In 1917, Barber started construction on his second residence at the Pinehurst resort and hired Edward H. Wiswell to design a miniature course in his backyard for his guests to play while they were staying there. Wiswell designed an 18-hole course, but it was small and would be played by only putting. The longest hole was 71 feet and the shortest was 12 feet. Wiswell did not make it an easy course. He used mounds of concrete to be positioned to stop the ball along with fountains, walkways, and mini gardens. After looking out at the completed course, Barber said “This’ll Do” and the course was named “Thistle Dhu” the Scottish pronunciation of this’ll do. There were several articles in newspapers and magazines about the course, but it remained private, only to be used by Barber and his friends. One story written in the May 1921 edition of Golf Illustrated tells a story of golfer named Tom Kelly playing at Thistle Dhu and how it took him 23 putts to complete one hole of the course.
Three years after Thistle Dhu opened, the Wentague County Club held an obstacle golf course tournament. The obstacles included an iron pipe, hurdles, and a sheet with a hole in the center. There was a similar event held in Pasadena, which was a 9-hole competition where players would have the chip the ball off of a brick, hit it through a barrel, and shoot it through a hoop. Prohibition came into effect in 1922, which meant that golfers could no longer sip on bourbon while playing a round of golf. The need to make golf more interesting without booze led to an increased interest in obstacle golf. This was also the time in America when we were really into Mah Jong and Ouija boards.
Golf enthusiasts took notice of Thistle Dhu and opened their own miniature golf courses. A mixture of cottonseed hulls, oil, sand and dye was created as a playing surface that could be put anywhere and
entrepreneurs began to build rooftop putting courses in New York City. By 1930, there were over 100 rooftop putting courses in New York where office workers could play a short game during breaks.
In 1927, a man named Garnet Carter placed a patent on the game of miniature golf, calling it “Tom Thumb Golf”. Garnet and his wife Frieda owned 700 acres on Lookout Mountain, north of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Garnet and Freida owned a Fairyland Inn and had buildings that included Mother Goose’s house, the Three Bear’s house, and Hansel and Gretel’s Gingerbread House. The Carter’s built their miniature golf course next to those buildings that reflected the fairy tale theme. Their mini-golf course had hollowed-out tree trunks, gnomes, and a statue of Snow White. Every hole had a different fairy-tale theme like Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and Little Miss Muffet. There were several animal heads where you would try to putt the ball into their mouths. If you were able to get the ball into the animal mouth, the animal would make it’s corresponding animal noise like moo, baa, or quack. In October of 1930, the first National Tom Thumb Championship was held. There was a first prize of $2,000 for both the Gentlemen’s and Ladies’ tournaments. Some players showed up to the resort two weeks before the tournament so that they could practice on the course. Herbert Barnett, a 32 year old cigar salesman that stood at 30 inches tall, played the course. He didn’t own his own club, so someone let him borrow their 36 inch putter. Herbert didn’t play very well, but he said “What do you expect? The only full size article I use is a Meditation cigar.”
The official Tom Thumb booklet stated “Passer bys see the course, they see people putting, they stop, they lean on the fence surrounding the course, they watch the ball as it travels towards the cup, they scream, they laugh, they are fascinated, they want to play, they do play, they laugh, they scream, they groan, at last they are playing golf.” For twenty dollars you could purchase the official Tom Thumb jacket and matching beret to wear while playing mini-golf. The Carter’s eventually sold the Tom Thumb franchise for $200,000 to a pickle manufacturer.
In 1930, the Commerce Department estimated that there were 25,000 mini-golf courses in the United States and by then end of 1930, it was estimated that 4 million Americans played mini-golf every day. If you wanted to own a golf course in the 30’s, you could order a package that came with blueprints and all the necessary parts that took about a week to assemble. There was a miniature golf course manufacturer in Rochester, New York that had around 200 employees. Some saw mini-golf as a way to get rich quick during the great depression. Even gas stations would have mini-golf courses built right next to them so travelers could play a quick game while they filled up their car with gas. One gas station had an advertisement that read “Play Tom Thumb Golf while your car is washed.”
With all of the new mini-golf courses being created, courses had to use slogans and gimmicks to set themselves apart. Some of the slogans were “A snappy course on a snappy site” “Don’t think it’s simple, it’s not” and “Fun exercise in the sunshine, which means health and happiness!”
Some mini-golf courses would have a Ladies day, where women players would be given flowers and one course in Taylorville, Illinois had a ladies’ night, where women could play for free on Wednesday nights. The course was lit up by twenty 200-watt lamps and 14 inch reflectors. Some course hired orchestras that would play while golfers putted and some of the courses had caddies. There were also ballroom courses where you would dance and play mini-golf.
The LA Times, doing some A-plus reporting on mini-golf, wrote that putting seemed to come naturally to women on account of their hereditary gift of being able to wield a broom every day. The Oakland Tribune sponsored a mini-golf competition. First place prize for the winner of the gentleman’s category was an Austin car. First place prize for the winner of ladies was a radio.
Many of the courses would have themes like Wild West or the Wonders of China where the Great Wall
was a favorite obstacle. A company named Miniature Golf Courses of America Inc made replicas of famous American landmarks such as Yellowstone Park, Puget Sound, and the Grand Canyon. Their slogan was “See the US with a putter”.
Courses had long hours, with some courses opening at 6 am and not closing until 4 am, so that those that had just gotten out of the opera or theater could go play a round of golf while still wearing their ballgowns and tuxes before going home. The Daily Gleaner wrote “Visit one of them at night and you will find it occupied by about 100 people, boy and girls, golfers and non-golfers… when a poker game breaks up in the early hours, the losers lure the winners to a new course and strike to get their money back. The women scream if they make a good shot and scream if they don’t.”
Most courses cost somewhere between 25 and 50 cents, which could also vary depending on if you were playing during the day or night. This was about the same cost as a movie theater ticket and there was a 25% drop in attendance at movie theaters, with some theaters being turned into mini-golf courses. Film studios started to forbid their stars to play mini-golf. This was a problem for some of the biggest stars at the time that were huge fans of mini-golf. Actress Mary Pickford owned the most expensive mini-golf course in the world where she would autograph golf balls and offer kisses to customers. Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks, and Fay Wray were some other famous stars of the time with a mini-golf hobby.
Rich people also got into the mini-golf craze. The Vanderbilts had their own course and Mabel Dodge, a New York socialite and author, constructed a three-story town house named “The Mecca of Merriment” that had a Tom Thumb course along with a dance hall, stage, bar and ping pong table. One Los Angeles course, trying to attract famous clientele, had a bear cub named Pronto that you had to putt your ball past. They had trained the bear to stop the balls by smearing them with honey and fish. Pronto the bear started in a cage that you had to shoot through and then eventually they got rid of the cage and just chained the bear to a post. There were signs placed next Pronto that read “Quit puttering around and bear down on that club” and “Do not bribe the hazard”.
Caliente Links in Desert Hot Springs, California cost $150,000 to build and had steam rising out the course features, including a castle. There were also skyscrapers that you would put into and your ball would shoot out of a window into another course hazard. South Pasadena had a course themed after a wild west wagon trail and you had to putt through scattered bones on one hole. There was also a course where one hole was just you playing through a full-sized Zulu hut.
Many mini-golf courses across the United States would have the “Singer Midgets” (most notably from the Wizard of Oz) perform while pretending to be touring professional mini-golfers.
Churches started taking issue with mini-golf. People were skipping out on Sunday service to go play mini-golf instead. Churches began to accuse mini-golf of promoting immorality. The East Orange City Council in New Jersey banned playing golf on Sundays despite a petition with 10,000 signatures asking to not ban it. Residents of cities would complain to their police and city officials about “shouts, curses, giggling, heehawing and raucousness” that was coming from the nearby curses. Cities began to put curfews on mini-golf and banning the construction of mini-golf courses next to schools. Newspapers started to call out President Herbert Hoover for allowing mini-golf to go unchecked. Will Rogers, a very famous celebrity, spoke out against the evils of mini-golf and how it distracted people from the hard realities of life. Will Rogers said “There’s millions with a putter in their hand when they ought to have a shovel.” And all of a sudden, mini-golf began to disappear as a past time just as fast as it had appeared.
In the early 1950’s, a 28 year old businessman named Don Clayton was suffering from stress. He would calm himself down by designing minigolf holes on index cards and then would construct them on his
lounge floor by using cardboard and string. Clayton then bought some land and opened a Putt Putt course in June 1954. Clayton made every hole a possible par two and got rid of the extreme gimmicks of the 1930’s mini-golf. Soon, the putt putt franchise expanded across America, building next to the newly paved highways and freeways. Many of the newly built mini-golf courses were part of entertainment parks that also included go-karts and bowling. Obstacles at these courses often included large statues with moving that were meant to distract players. Giant windmills, sphinxes, pyramids, and dinosaurs were popular obstacles. Mini-golf was now seen as wholesome, unlike the party image that it had in the 30’s, and was a popular past time for suburban families and dating teenagers.
In 1977, George W Bush took Laura on their first date to a Putt Putt Course in Midland, Texas.
In 1989, Donald Trump built a miniature golf course in Central Park named Gotham Golf where players had to putt around the Plaza Hotel and Trump Tower and finally around Trump Air jets at the ninth hole modeled after La Guardia Airport.
“How Did Sports Begin? A Look At The Origins Of Man At Play” by Rudolph Brasch
“Club History” by St. Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club
“The Origin of Miniature Golf and ‘Thistle Dhu’” by Chris Boznos
“Birthplace of Miniature Golf in Chattanooga” by Offbeat Tennessee
“Trump Shows N.Y. Art Of The Putt In Mini Golf” by New York Times
“Nutters with Putters” by Tim Davies and John McIver
“Bear Down, There, You Golfers” by the Southeast Missourian