Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is a resort town and the crown jewel of the Grand Strand, a 60-mile stretch of beach in the Palmetto State. Much of the small city’s tourism is centered on miniature golf; the courses come one after another as you drive down Highway 17, which borders the Strand.
Mini-golf dates back to the 19th century. In Scotland the Ladies’ Putting Club of St. Andrews had a miniature course based on the conventions of the time that it was improper for a lady to “take the club back past their shoulder.”
Garnet Carter is generally considered the forefather of mini-golf as we know it; his course in Tennessee featured hollowed-out tree trunks, rock tunnels, and gnomes to accompany the themes conjured up by his Fairyland Inn. Carter patented and franchised this model, named it “Tom Thumb Golf,” and soon courses were sprouting up around the nation.
The recreation activity took hold in the lean years of the Great Depression. Scrap material – tires, pipes, and the like – made courses cheaper to produce, a savings passed down to cash-strapped customers ever in need of leisure activities.
The market for miniature golf has ebbed and flowed ever since. But in Myrtle Beach, it mostly just flows. The city has more mini-golf courses per square mile than any other, and every year it hosts the US ProMiniGolf Association’s “Master’s” Tournament.
In 1926, mogul John T. Woodside provided the funds to pave Highway 17, and built the city’s first golf course. The Tom Thumb models seized the attentions of the area’s real estate developers. Mini-golf courses were cheaper to build and maintain than a traditional course, there was no shortage of available labor, and with a longer vacation season than most East Coast cities, the stars aligned. In 1935 a tourism magazine hyped the town as a destination, including the mini-golf courses, and the rest is history.
Nina Garinkel and Maria Reidelbach, in the book Miniature Golf, remark on the “Myrtle Beach Style” of mini-golf courses that came to be by the 1970s. It is “characterized by large central rockeries made of sprayed synthetic rock over which water, dyed blue or gold, cascades dramatically…Invariably a jungle atmosphere is invoked, replete with palm trees, thatched huts, and fiberglass ‘wild animals.’”
Bob Detwiler, president of the US ProMiniGolf Association and the man behind several courses in Myrtle Beach including Hawaiian Rumble, estimates that mini-golf brings $25 million a year to the city. While there are other attractions along the Grand Strand and within city limits, it is the string of golf courses – those mountains, jungles, and exotic lands begging to be conquered with a small colored ball and a putter – that call out a siren song to many travelers. And with about 50 courses in place and a healthy competition among them, mini-golf figures to remain an important part of the city’s economy.
I arrive in Myrtle Beach on a Sunday night and sail in to Captain Hook’s Adventure Golf. As a fan of Peter Pan, I’m happy to be immediately whisked away to a mini-golf version of Never Never Land. Passages from J. M. Barre’s beloved novel are printed on wooden signs so that as you progress through the course, you re-live the tale. You enter a cavern and see “Hook’s Jailhouse,” eye silhouettes in the window of a tavern, board a pirate ship, find Tinkerbell locked away, and encounter treasure, among the many delights.
I play alongside a family of four from Tennessee – a husband and wife, and their two teenage children. We chat about my trip, Tennessee, California…the young lady asks me, ‘My friend says all the hills in California are brown – is that true?” I respond that for the most part, yes, they are green for only a few months every year.
Myrtle Beach has other pleasures in store for me on this particular trip – delicious pizza at Gino’s, a lovely stay at the pristine Vancouver Motel – and it’s also significant because it marks the end of one half of my cross-country trip. I’ve driven all the way from California. The rain arrives the next morning just as I walk on the beach. A feeling of immense gratitude and bliss overwhelms me as I touch the water.
Rain is bad for mini-golf, but I’m intent on experiencing other courses. Not surprisingly, I am the only customer at Jungle Lagoon. The fiberglass giraffe, rhino, tiger, gorilla, and other creatures are my sole companions. I have to look for shelter now and then but the rain is not steady which affords me the ability to play the entire course. It has a “Scenic Overlook” where you get a spectacular overlook of the city.
The Cancun Lagoon features half-inside, half-outside courses in addition to an all-outside course. I welcome the respite from the rain. The course has a Mayan theme, with cave paintings, waterfalls, potted plants, and several multi-level holes. It is less fanciful than Captain Hook, less endearing than Jungle Cancun, but just as appealing in its own way.
I make an unplanned stop at the Nostalgia City & Museum. This store/museum is filled with Americana: signage, famous life-size figures, vehicles large and small, license plates, tacky and charming souvenirs – a stuffed mermaid with an “I (Heart) Myrtle Beach” t-shirt combines both qualities – and various treats and knick-knacks.
Other tourist activities beg my attention, such as an aquarium and a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum. However, the need for food, the presence of the rain, and most of all the constant conundrum of the cross-country trip – the push to keep going and see as many different things as possible – spur me to bade goodbye. It’s a tough call to make, but I promise myself to one day return to the ancient civilizations, jungle wonderlands, and exotic islands that promise fun and a momentary escape from life’s troubles.
Ali Slagle, “Why Myrtle Beach Takes Mini-Golf So Seriously,” Atlas Obscura, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/why-so-many-mini-golf-places-myrtle-beach
Ransom Riggs, “The Zany History of Mini Golf,” Mental Floss, http://mentalfloss.com/article/19567/zany-history-mini-golf
Many thanks to Julie Ellis, Public Relations & Communications Manager, who took the time to respond to my queries in the midst of recovery from Hurricane Florence.