Publish date:

The Putt-Putt Chronicles

Wherein the author and two other duffers max out on minigolf

Most miniature golf courses are so sublimely surreal that only Salvador Dalí could run the pro shops. What other sport requires you to whack a ball between the whirling blades of a windmill, then through a papier-m‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢chè sphinx and into the jaws of a giant toad with revolving eyes? Somewhere in the world there must be a course with a melting watch.

Surely no other sport is so unremittingly Grimm. Minigolf was first played in 1926 at a Tennessee resort called Fairyland Inn, where gnomes and elves guarded the holes and the game was known as Tom Thumb Golf. By the end of the Roaring '20s as many as four million Americans were playing every day, and a hit song bore the title I've Gone Goofy over Miniature Golf. Courses were installed on Manhattan rooftops, in hotel ballrooms, on the grounds of a state hospital for the insane. One California woman sued her zoning board for permission to put a course in a graveyard on her land, with tombstones as hazards. There was even a course in Vienna's Prater Gardens—perhaps best known for the Ferris wheel scene in The Third Man. Imagine Orson Welles selling black-market penicillin while putting into a 20-foot Sacher torte.

The game survives into the Nintendo '90s with a retrohipness. Jumbo "miniature golf parks"—with easy, channeled fairways and indented greens—carpet the country. But for the real deal you've got to go to Myrtle Beach, S.C., a drowsy hamlet that bills itself as the miniature golf capital of the world. The town's Grand Strand, an endless strip of T-shirt shops and hermit-crab emporiums, boasts no fewer than two dozen courses—nearly all with obstacles and props that recall the bullyragging absurdism of Monty Python. I have been charged with the task of playing all of them in three days.

In the Pythonian scheme of things, people are either sensible, slightly silly, silly or very silly. Since no sensible person would think of accompanying me, I enlist a slightly silly friend, John Diliberto, and a silly one, Mark Moskowitz. You can guess where that leaves me. Diliberto, the host and producer of Echoes, a nationally syndicated New Age radio show, is bluff and bearded, with trampoline eyebrows. Moskowitz, a political and statistical consultant, lives by the ethic "Perseverance despite pointlessness." Both of them think that Fred Couples is a Bedrock dating service.

1. Inlet Adventure

It's a little after 8 a.m., and the only thing open is the sky: Rain pours down. We tee off at 8:30 and start arguing at 8:32. Moskowitz has calculated how fast we need to play to get through 16 courses by midnight. "Making allowances for driving and eating," he says, "we've got 45 minutes at each one, max."

"Are you kidding?" says Diliberto, the purist. "You can't play faster than the people in front of you."

"We'll play holes out of order," says Moskowitz, the pragmatist.

A more pressing question arises after Moskowitz wins this mountainous, waterfall-filled course by five strokes. Tapping figures into the laptop computer he has brought to track our progress, he asks, "Is this a pirate course?"

"What's the difference?" I say.

"I've got to list it under a theme. Pirate? Mountain? Nautical?"

"Nautical has a nice ring to it."

"But there's a pirate flag out front."

"Pirate?" says Diliberto, arching his trampolines. "Where's the treasure chest? I don't see crow's nests. I don't see doubloons." He may have a point. A Jolly Roger does not a pirate course make. Or does it?

2. Gilligan's Island Funland, 9:25 a.m.

Little Buddy spent three seasons stuck in a sand trap. We breeze through the Minnows Course in 39 minutes. On the 7th hole we encounter our first moving obstruction. A firm stroke from the tee mat sends Diliberto's ball ricocheting off the rails and into a beeline for the hole. But the certain ace runs smack into the left shoe of Moskowitz, who's lining up a four-inch shot. Diliberto screws his black SONIC POWER USA cap down on his head as if it were the lid on a jam jar. "I get to take it over," he whines.

"No you don't," says Moskowitz. "It's par for the course."

"What's par for the course?"

"Fifty-four," I say.

Mulligan denied, Diliberto cards a 2.

3. Adventure Falls, 10:30 a.m.

After winning the first two games with orange balls, Moskowitz switches to yellow. "I'll be able to see the ball better in caves," he explains. The cave on 15 has an unadvertised water hazard—a poor putt will dump your ball into a puddle. This tricky par-2 must be played billiards-style: The ball that caroms farthest has the best chance of reaching the hole. Diliberto's brown ball banks off a couple of rails and stops on the soggy carpet about three feet from the cup. Moskowitz's yellow ball follows a similar route and sidles up to Diliberto's. The air is damp and fusty. I wonder if a Neanderthal swung the first club in a cave like this—not at a ball but at another Neanderthal.

My red ball flies down the fairway with the force of a sledgehammer break. It hits the other two, and all three go spinning off like planets. Red lands in the hole; yellow and brown, the drink. I get an ace; my opponents, 4s.

4. Harbor Light, 11:31 a.m.

"The key to winning at miniature golf is pencils," says Moskowitz after I blow a one-stroke lead by triple-bogeying. "I've won every time the scorecard pencil had the course name inscribed on it."

I check. He's right. The runty yellow pencil I got at Adventure Falls is the only anonymous one in the bunch.

5. Buccaneer Bay, 12:30 p.m.

The cashier gives us a choice. "You can play either the Fast or the West Isles." she says. "Your East Isles has your international speed carpet and your cave. Your West Isles is a little more aggressive, and you go over waterfalls."

We side with aggression, which is fine with Moskowitz, who is eyeing his watch. "We averaged 49.3 minutes on the last three courses," he frets. "Let's play this one as fast as we can." We buzz through the holes, shouting our scores to Moskowitz across the empty West Isles linkscape like revved-up country auctioneers: "Three!" "Two!" "Four!" "Two!" "Did I hear four?" "Five."

Twelve minutes after teeing off we reach the 18th hole. We're all tied at 43. Diliberto and Moskowitz take the conservative approach and sink their second shots. I try for the game-winning ace. My pink Pinnacle lips the cup, hits the backstop and rebounds over a lump in the fairway. That's as close to the cup as I get. The lump proves as impassable as Annapurna, and I take a mandatory 5.

Diliberto: "That wasn't fun."

Moskowitz: "We can have fun on some of them if we rush through most of them."

6. Grand Prix Challenge, 1:03 p.m.

Moskowitz is standing by a moored schooner near the 7th hole, his attention waning. He's winning, but he's tired. "No, I'm not tired," he says. He laughs hard, but his face is a little tight with fatigue. "I'm exhausted!"

Moskowitz has the unmistakable minigolf blankness that occurs when one game begins to blend with the next. He's trying to remember just what he did when, during this long, long day.

His orange ball rolls through a hollow and down a tunnel, then lazily winds down a path and into the cup. "I'm sure I've played this hole before," he says.

7, 8. Fantasy Golf, 1:58 p.m.

Is this what golfers fantasize about? Holes in tepees? Holes watched over by pigs in overalls? Holes concealed by frogs in love seats under golf umbrellas?

On the giraffe hole my ball rims the cup, bounds around the green, skips over the brick bumper, glances off a gum-ball machine and rolls noisily across a Dairy Queen parking lot. We play both the front and back courses, aptly named the Front and the Back. Diliberto takes the Front, Moskowitz takes the Back. At lunch, I take the Check.

Moskowitz has begun timing everything—course time, hole time, travel time, even rest-stop time. Now, in the restaurant, he's clocking our waitress. "She's taking forever to bring the check," he fumes. "We could have played three courses!" Ahead by 22 strokes, Moskowitz is starting to crack.

9. Hurl Rock, 3:53 p.m.
A green. A rock. A sunken cup. The 15th hole is as spare as the stage in a Beckett play. At the end of the green is the cup. Behind the cup is the rock. No doglegs, no dips, no rises, no looming Buddhas, no overhanging octopus tendrils. Just pure nihilistic minigolf. "This should be a cinch," says Moskowitz. It's not. His shot skirts the cup and stops behind the rock. He settles for a 3. As does Diliberto. As docs me. And you thought Beckett held the patent on the grim futility of human endeavor.

10. Pirate's Watch, 4:47 p.m.

Moskowitz wants to know what to call the red fort on 7: "A cave? A structure? A historic edifice?"

According to his calculations, I'm averaging 3.27 strokes per cave, 4.16 per structure and a brilliant 2.09 per historic edifice. Moskowitz punches in more numbers and adds, "Your stroke average in historic pirate edifices is 1.87!"

"If this isn't an edifice," I say hopefully, "I don't know what is." I card a 2, a bit over my average, but not enough to give me an edifice complex.

11. Jungle Lagoon, 5:55 p.m.

I look out across the tranquil waters and think back to the only round of maxigolf I've ever played—at the Konkola Golf Club in Chililabombwe, Zambia. The scorecard warned in bold letters, BEWARE OF CROCODILES ON 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15, 17,18, and noted, A BALL COMING TO REST IN A HIPPO FOOTPRINT MAY BE LIFTED AND DROPPED IN THE NEAREST POSSIBLE POSITION TO PROVIDE MAXIMUM RELIEF.

The signs on this course warn: "No beating your clubs against the carpet." Who needs to? These jungle cups are only slightly smaller than the divots hippos leave; ostriches could nest in them.

Moskowitz, infected with jungle fever, aces 1, 2 and 5 en route to a game-winning 35. "If I can't beat you guys in a jungle," he says, "I should get out now."

12. Captain Hook's Adventure, 7:05 p.m.
Diliberto stands on the 18th green smiling to himself like a man who has just made a perfect putt. He has. Wielding his plastic-headed putter like a freebooter's cutlass, Diliberto makes short work of the Lost Boys course—which pretty well sums up my back nine. Tied for the lead, I enter a kind of never-never land on 10. By the time I emerge, I've recorded one double and two triple bogeys. It's enough to make you believe in bad fairies.

13. Spyglass Adventure, 8:00 p.m.
While Moskowitz compares our scores on three-tiered mesa holes with rock barriers to two-humped doglegs with chutes in the middle, the cashier leads Diliberto and me on a tour of exploding powder kegs, gangplanks and smoking cannons. Pirateshy Moskowitz is heartened to learn that this joint used to be called Moby Dick Golf. "Can I list it under nautical?" he asks.

14. Jungle Caverns, 8:52 p.m.

This bush course is thick with magnolias, hibiscus, ducks and mosquitoes. "We had chickens," says the manager, "but somebody killed them."

I ask him about the Ty-D-Bol-colored water that cascades down the granite and cement mountain, whooshes around the make-believe elephant and gurgles past the fairways.

It's a biodegradable dye, he tells me, "safe enough for fish to swim in." Then he asks guilelessly, "Wanna drink?"

Moskowitz says, "I wonder if that's what killed the chickens."

15. Treasure Island, 9:36 p.m.

Flushed from his second straight jungle triumph, Moskowitz is a little apprehensive about playing another pirate course. He hasn't won a pirate course outright in 13 hours. He's especially wary of hole number 17. Since Buccaneer Bay he has averaged 4.33 strokes on penultimate pirate holes. "I wonder how many jungle courses are left," he says, making a church roof of his fingers. "It could be all pirates, and I'll be in trouble."

His face turns ashen after his faded orange ball stops dead an inch from the opening hole. "It knows I maligned it," he says, just above a whisper.

"Who's it?" I ask.

"Orange," he says. Except for that one regrettable interlude at Adventure Falls, Moskowitz has played bright orange exclusively. "I didn't want to take faded orange," he confesses, "but that's all this place has. I know, in my heart, that faded orange is no good. But I'm afraid if I pick another color, bright orange will know and lose faith in me. So I'm sticking with orange—no matter what shade—until the very end."

16. Rainbow Falls, 10:20 p.m.

Moskowitz is sitting on the steps of a pink castle near the 16th hole. He's winning, but he's tired. "No way I'm tired," he says. "I'm exhausted!"

Moskowitz has the unmistakable minigolf blankness that occurs when one game begins to blend with the next. He's trying to remember just what he did when, during this long, long day.

His orange ball rolls through a hollow and down a tunnel, then lazily winds down a path and into the cup. "I'm sure we've played this hole before," he says.

17 jungle Golf, 9:02 a.m.

Moskowitz is mapping out the 10 courses we'll play on our second day. Diliberto is getting nostalgic. He's pining for the good old day. "The level of play has changed," says the minigolf veteran. "Now 5s are taking us out of the game."

"Fives!" says Moskowitz. "Fours! It's all 2s and 3s!"

Diliberto comes from four strokes back to overtake me on 16. "It smells like victory," he screams after bogeying 18. Either victory or Gracie, the African pygmy goat that is penned at the 1st tee.

18. Jungle Golf—Windy Hill, 9:59 a.m.

The old-timer handing out putters says a recent customer told him Jungle-Windy is the oldest active minigolf course in Myrtle Beach.

"How do you know for sure?" said the old-timer skeptically.

"Because I designed it," said the customer proudly.

"Is that a fact?" said the old-timer. "Ever give any thought to drainage?"

The small lakes swamping the first five greens were not left by an incontinent plaster zebra. After we slosh through the course, the old-timer yells, "How many holes in one did you get? Most people get three or four, but one fella had 14."

Diliberto lowers his head and whispers, "Did I get any?"

19, 20. Wacky Golf, 10:47 a.m.

The wackiest hole on Wackyland's Jurassic Park course is not the one guarded by Wacky Man, an ear-shaped mutant that even Dr. Seuss wouldn't have delivered. It's the one that requires your ball to scoot under a ravenous Tyrannosaurus rex. When mine gets wedged under T. rex's right foot, I spend several Ice Ages trying to pry it out.

Beside himself over the free game he won by acing 18, Moskowitz says, "Let's play two." So we drift over to Wackyland's Fantasyland course, which is about as close to the original Fairyland as you can get. Mother Hubbard's shoe is a triple-chuted stunner from another time and place: 1963, the Twilight Zone.

Diliberto knocks his ball up a ramp and into the shoe's middle chute, which spits it out a stroke from the hole.

Moskowitz's ball hits the sole and boomerangs to the tee mat. He makes the far-right chute on his second shot and the cup on his third.

My ball drops into the far-left chute and disappears. Forever. I look in the hole. Nothing. I search the green. Nothing. I jam my putter up the tube. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Like Mother Hubbard, I don't know what to do.

21. Aladdin's Magic Springs, 12:30 p.m.

Moskowitz is in his own zone. "I don't even take in the scenery anymore," he says. "We're already on 14, and I just noticed the genie at the entrance."

Diliberto says, "There is no genie at the entrance."

"See what I mean?"

22. Hawaiian Rumble, 2:33 p.m.

Moskowitz, the minigolf Sabu asks meekly, "Is Hawaii a jungle?"

"Nope," says Diliberto, barely suppressing his glee. "It's tropical."

Diliberto is as hot as molten lava, Moskowitz as dull as his nubby pencil.

23. McLean Medieval Village, 3:37 p.m.

Catapults, a battering ram and a sorcerer's cave make this jerry-built course the most Pythonesque in Myrtle Beach. And our path, like that of King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, is blocked by obstacles: severely tilted ramps and embankments; bumpers staggered at 45-degree angles; treacherous plateaus flanked by deadly dips.

I joust on the flecked-blue green with a crusader's zeal. I vanquish the ramps. I conquer the bumpers. I scale the plateaus. My 37 puts me six strokes from the lead, the closest I've been since Inlet Adventure, our very first course.

Lapsing into seriousness, Moskowitz says, "Laying out a miniature golf course must be a lot like making political commercials." He has produced tons of mayoral, gubernatorial and even presidential spots. "There are thousands and thousands of candidates all over the country, but there are only four messages. There's crime, taxes and education, which is not really education but education reform. There's also jobs, which is now new jobs, better-paying jobs and sometimes new and better-paying jobs."

"Which is why miniature golf is just like life," says Diliberto. "There are only a handful of themes."

"Exactly. Politics, life and miniature golf are one and the same. The courses fall into similar genres, and within any genre there are minute differences. The one difference between politics and miniature golf is strategy and tactics." As Moskowitz speaks, his hands are constantly on the move, the long fingers combing the air. "Miniature golf has neither. It's like hockey: You're just dumping the ball into the zone."

24. Pirate's Cove, 5:04 p.m.

Moskowitz is leaning against a thatched hut near the 12th hole. "I'm not really tired," he says. "I'm exhausted!"

Moskowitz has that unmistakable minigolf blankness that occurs when one game begins to blend with the next. He's trying to remember just what he did when, during this long, long day.

His bright orange ball rolls through a hollow and down a tunnel, then lazily winds down a path and into the cup. "Haven't we played this hole before?" he says.

25. River Country, 6 p.m.

Four holes in. Diliberto is still steamed over his third-place finish at Pirate's Cove. "I shot a 41!" he says. "That would have won just about any other course."

"Not on a combination jungle-pirate," says Moskowitz, who had gotten psyched by telling himself the course was really a pirate course with jungle holes.

In truth, this is really a kiddie course. Any shot within five feet of the cup seems to dive in. Diliberto finishes third again, this time with a 38—until now, the second-lowest score of the tour.

Closing out with my second straight ace, I hear the glottal rumble of his radio voice: "This one shouldn't count!"

26. Pelican Point, 8:22 p.m.

Three years ago a college coed sank a short putt on Pelican Point's 16th green. At least she thought she had. The ball struck something in the cup and bounced out. A rock, she guessed.

She was right. She reached into the cup and pulled out a box. Inside the box was an engagement ring. Her boyfriend proposed on the spot.

Not content just to court disaster on 16, I slip an engagement ring on its finger and name the day. To reach the long bobsled run of a fairway, the ball must pass beneath a rock ledge. At least that's what the other balls do. Mine keeps finding the ledge and rolling back to the putting mat.

My 4 is offset by Moskowitz's 5 on the 17th hole—a crater in the center of what looks like a vest-pocket volcano. He grabs the scorecard. I grab the lead.

27. Sea Mist Resort, 9:25 a.m.

Diliberto begins Day 3 by reading the roll of Myrtle Beach's recent minigolf dead: "Circus Golf, Noah's Ark Golf, Barefoot Ghostly Golf...." His speech is an ocean swell that rises and dips.

"Anyone up for Cane Patch Par 3?" asks Moskowitz. "It's got natural grass."

"Natural grass!" I protest. "Talk about defiling the game's traditions!"

Sea Mist sports the toughest holes in town. On the 7th we all take 5s. Ditto on number 17. On 18, a molehill encircled by cigarette butts and pigeon doo, I contract the yips. I watch the shaft of my club sway back and forth, back and forth. I try to swing, but the putter will not move.

"You've lost the connection between your aim and the hole," says Moskowitz. "The silliness of grinding for 2s has given way to settling for 3s. You try for 3s, but you think, Why not 4s? You know, we all know, and you retreat to the sanctuary of a 5."

Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill.

28. Jungle Breeze, 10:30 a.m.
It's a jungle out there, which means another sure victory for Moskowitz. I'm clutching at vines: I relinquish the game lead on 6, the tour lead on 7 and my hopes on 18. Five times the ball climbs a modified Skee-Ball ramp and hits the plywood backboard. Five times it rolls back to the tee. Jungle Boy offers some encouragement: "If you keep your Skee-Ball average under 2.65, you could still win this thing."

29. Ocean Adventure, 11:59 a.m.

Sid Caesar once performed a comedy sketch about a jungle dweller who was so strong, he killed a Buick by punching it in the grille. And here is Diliberto, a onetime University of Pennsylvania defensive tackle, threatening to inflict serious damage on his putter. His shot in the rocks, his sanity on the ropes, he crashes around the 17th green howling like a ruptured sewer pipe.

I ask him how he feels.

"How do I feel?" he groans. "How do I feel? Like a ballplayer at the end of a losing season, playing out his string."

30. Gilligan's Island, 1:11 p.m.

For the finale we drag ourselves back to Gilligan's Isle. Our three-day cruise seems to have lasted an eternity. Diliberto, who normally thrives in the tropics, plays out his string on the Castaways course with a phlegmatic 50, which is still 10 strokes better than tour-winner Moskowitz, whose front-nine 32 sets a new standard for wretched excess. I card a 53. Astonishingly, after 30 courses and 540 holes, we're all within five strokes of each other.

We shuffle out to the car. I slip behind the steering wheel, turn the key and coast blissfully down the Grand Strand. I slow down on curves. I speed up on straightaways. I narrowly miss a truck stalled in the middle of the road. Like a minigolf ball I, too, am a hapless commuter, propelled by the pitch of the path around me.

"Hey, look!" shouts Diliberto. "I think I see a giant clown up ahead. You think maybe we missed a course?"

We whiz by the polka-dot clown, the lime-green waffle house, the cherry-red motor home and lots of other wacky roadside ticky-tacky. Moskowitz was right. The world is a miniature golf course.



His style was unorthodox, but Pennsylvania Lidz sank putts on cue.



The author thought mad Ludwig of Bavaria couldn't have designed a better hole for Adventure Falls.



Moskowitz scheduled course visits with a heavy hand and beat his two partners by a neck.



Moskowitz and Lidz felt right at home in Wackyland, where life imitates putt-putt art.



The three men battled monster courses by day and plotted insane golf-war strategies by night.