When I was growing up, the "golf" in Goofy Golf was never the main attraction. I wanted to putt in the shadows of dinosaurs. Maybe they were only pastel-colored, plaster-of-Paris triceratops and tyrannosaurus rexes, but they were the closest a kid could get to the real thing.
Dinosaurs make everything better, but they're not the only reason for my fond memories of the classic mini-golf obstacles. You had to time your putt just right to send your ball through the blades of a turning windmill, or past the teeth and down the gullet of a grinning alligator, or over the drawbridge of a tiny storybook castle. The old miniature golf course on Buford Highway, just a few miles from where I now live, featured an eye-catching dinosaur looming over on the sidewalk. That putt-putt place is long gone, and as I set out to discover the current state of miniature golf, I found that the old-fashioned, kitschy style seems to have gone the way of the dinosaurs themselves. But I may have discovered something else of unexpected value.
Rainforest Golf near Stone Mountain captures some of the tacky authenticity of the mini-golf courses you remember. A jungle theme loosely unifies its 36 holes, and when I visited on a sunny Saturday afternoon in May, the water hazards were more than half-empty and the landscaping was unfinished. It looked rather like a case study of South American deforestation. I certainly like the life-size giraffe that stands proudly at the summit, and probably would have missed the place without the landmark. But otherwise, Rainforest Golf disappointingly features only a couple of other fake animals. I have to wonder if it's a coincidence that, from the 14th hole, the elephant's butt mimics the contours of Stone Mountain visible behind it.
Apparently, those bygone windmills, clown faces and dinosaur feet provided some of the zany charge of mini-golf. Take the kitschy frills from the equation and putt-putt turns into physics. Most greens feature challenges -- hairpin turns, steep slopes, bulky obstacles and multilevel drops -- so competing requires that you estimate trajectories, momentum and golf-ball friction. It's more of a game for students of engineering and science, so what's a liberal arts major to do?
As I played the easier "Elephant Walk" course at Rainforest Golf, it occurred to me that anyone can putt a golf ball and have it go in. It takes a special aptitude to miss so outlandishly and at such short distances as I can. Apparently, I'm a savant for strokes that send the ball circling around the lip of the cup, only to roll back nearly to my feet. Has Tiger Woods ever sank a putt, only to have it bounce right back out again? I have.
As I played, I surprised myself. I didn't flash back to long-lost dinosaurs, but to my dad. He was a "real" golfer and tried his best to coax me into joining him on the driving range or bona fide golf course, as well as the occasional putt-putt places on vacation. I never really got the hang of real golf, but I recalled some unexpectedly fond memories of our quality time. When I'd face a high-pressure shot on a putting green, Dad would clutch his neck and exclaim, "Choke! The gripper!" Once, when my club struck the grass too early and gave my ball the barest of nudges, he dryly pronounced "El Scuffo" -- a phrase I remembered several times at Rainforest Gulf. At times like these, Dad teased with a smile in his voice and encouraged me to mock him in return.
So for my next putt-putt outing, I brought my wife and 3-year-old daughter out to Gwinnett County to Pirate's Cove, part of a national chain with a nautical motif. Bigger, cleaner and slicker than Rainforest, Pirate's Cove doesn't offer any whimsical putting hazards, either, but features a couple of menacing, artificial buccaneers and some pre-recorded taunts: "You'll not get your hands on my treasure, swabby!" Blackbeard the mascot proves surprisingly concerned about safety. On the scorecard he announces, "Please watch your step, wear flats and avoid horseplay!" That doesn't sound very piratey.
Pirates aside, putt-putt proved to be a different experience with my family. My wife claimed to have barely played miniature golf in her life, but at short distances, she turned out to be far more accurate than me. Teeing off, though, she had control issues, and occasionally her ball would careen into the rough. Once it ricocheted off a tree and sailed heart-stoppingly -- but harmlessly -- close to our daughter.
Our little girl eagerly tried the game, but quickly became interested in playing by her own rules, which mostly consisted of picking up the ball and hurling it into the water hazards that smelled of old swimming pools. She became so distracted and rambunctious that my wife eventually took her aside to admire the pirate's ship while I played the back nine on my own, moving as fast as I could so they wouldn't get bored.
People were polite about letting me play through, but it was nicer to have my family involved, and not just because they witnessed my hole-in-one at the fourth hole. (In general, I scored well above par at both putt-putt courses, which is not good.) Trying to show my daughter the fun side of putt-putt, I appreciated my dad's efforts to interest me in the game, and not just the oversized decorations. Perhaps parenting, and not putting to par, is the true object of miniature golf. When she gets older, I'll take my daughter again, and maybe we can track down some dinosaurs together.
Where To play miniature golf
Like the drive-in movie theater, putt-putt golf courses are a dying breed. Here are four places to recapture a moment of youth in the metro area:
Malibu Grand Prix, 5400 Brook Hollow Parkway, Norcross. 770-416-7630. www.malibugrandprix.com.
Mountasia Marietta, 175 Ernest Barrett Parkway, Marietta. 770-422-7227. mountasia.com.
Pirate's Cove, 3380 Venture Parkway, Duluth. 770-623-4184. www.piratescove.net.
Rainforest Golf, 5400 Bermuda Road, Stone Mountain. 770-498-7205.
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