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Metro Pulse Putting Around

Yea, we have putted through the valley of minigolf and we have survived...

By Coury Turczyn

JUNE 29, 1998:  As the lurching tyrannosaur bore down on us, jagged teeth flashing in the summer sun, I couldn't help but think that I had finally attained true inner peace. An unnaturally blue waterfall coursed its way down the purple mountain beside us, kicking up a spray in the warm, funnel-cake scented breeze coming off the parkway. In the distance came the huffing roar of go-karts skidding hopelessly out of control. And above us, like an unbalanced metronome, appeared the figure of an overweight girl being repeatedly bungeed into the deep blue sky of Pigeon Forge.

Yes indeed—this was minigolf as it was truly meant to be.

Many of us here probably take minigolf for granted, living as we do in an area overrun by plaster-and-chickenwire dinosaurs, aliens, and pirate ships. Spoiled by such an excess of riches, we often ignore their inherent value—some probably even scoff. But these artfully contrived mini-golf centers offer a multimedia experience you can't replicate on your PC. The best courses are fantasyland creations that whisk you away to different worlds that demand interaction.

Have no doubt—minigolf is no ordinary sport; it is a duel between man and inanimate beast that utilizes all your senses. Croquet? Badminton? Those are but sissy kids' games compared to the grueling battles to be had on such courses as Dinosaur Golf or Fantasy Golf. Where else can you find three-dimensional creatures attempting to distract you from hitting a birdie? No, I'm afraid you won't find a giant octopus on any of those supposedly "real" golf courses where all you have to do is hit a ball in a straight line a few times. Golfers take note: Your so-called sport pales in comparison to the real challenges of banking a hole-in-one off a windmill's vane—on worn-out Astroturf. And have you ever had to battle for your life against some 4-year-old punk with a hot hand? I didn't think so.

And if it's heritage you want, miniature golf has it—a glorious history brimming with innovation. The game started as "Garden Golf" in the 1900s as a sort of shortened version of real golf. In the '20s, rails were added to confine the balls, along with a hardened surface instead of grass. The game became highly popular among movie stars, which helped create a minigolf fad—by the 1930s, there were about 30,000 links around the country. Then came "Rinkiedink" golf, in which crazed enthusiasts would play wherever they could set up a course (on rooftops in New York, for instance) and would integrate scavenged obstacles, such as old tires, wagon wheels, stove pipes, etc. Popularity continued to grow through the '60s when the advent of "fantasy" courses with odd creatures and miniature houses changed the way we putt forever. Today, according to the World Minigolfsport Federation, about half of the American population visits a miniature golf course at least one time annually.

Sadly, Myrtle Beach, S.C., is considered the Miniature Golf Capital of the World, with more than 45 courses. But minigolfing Tennesseans should feel no shame—not only do we have the twin cities of minigolf majesty (Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg), but Chattanooga was also the home of the first national minigolf championship. In the fall of 1930, the First National Tom Thumb Open Miniature Golf Tournament was held on Lookout Mountain, in Chattanooga, with over 200 players representing 30 states. Top prize: $2,000.

With this rich heritage coursing through our veins, it is our civic duty to patronize local minigolf courses and pay homage to the putt-putters who came before us. But which courses are truly worthy of our putts? To answer this question, we devoted many months of research investigating local minigolf resources. Finally, a two-man team composed of myself and Zak Weisfeld (Knoxville's Most Hated Writer TM) ventured out in my decrepit '68 MGB with but a single goal in mind: to find true minigolf nirvana.

It was a long and perilous journey, fraught with many obstacles—some of them good, some of them not so good. Here's what we found.

Our first foray took us into the western regions of Knoxville—sort of an appetizer to the minigolf feasts that awaited us in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Our gaze was immediately caught by the diminutive tyrannosaur of SIR GOONY GOLF (10925 Kingston Pike), standing somewhat forlornly by the side of the road as if sending out a plea: "Please, don't make fun of me. Just play."

The tyrannosaur, you see, has become the calling card of most fantasy minigolf courses—most probably due to Steven Spielberg's epic moneymaker, Jurassic Park. Somehow, in the '90s, dinosaurs and minigolf fused together to form a whole new mega-entertainment genre. Unfortunately, Goony's truncated, lumpy little dino doesn't inspire awe so much as sympathy. Despite the lack of engineering or design prowess, however, we found Goony's course to be crudely charming. With its clunky little windmill and animal obstacles, Goony inspires a sense of nostalgia—perhaps this was the way our parents and grandparents enjoyed the sport in its "golden age." But real putting challenges were few.

Next up a few blocks along the road was the McDonald's of minigolf, PUTT-PUTT GOLF & GAMES (164 West End Ave.). Professional, clean, orderly—this is minigolf for the purist. In fact, Putt-Putt was founded in 1953 on the minimalist tastes of its owner, Don Clayton, who was a vocal advocate of miniature golf as a serious sport. Disgusted by the proliferation of zany obstacles and trick shots, he instituted a chain of courses that focused on straight putting.

That design esthetic is in evidence in Farragut's Putt-Putt, with its simple obstacles and subtle challenges. Most breathtaking is the huge waterfall in the course's center, a rush of bright blue water that sparkles in the sun before pooling in a pond that one must putt around. The overall feel is more akin to a Japanese garden than a primordial swamp, and for serious enthusiasts, this is clearly the right choice. But what of those who seek more of a sense of adventure? We're afraid they must look elsewhere.

CELEBRATION STATION (400 N. Peters Rd.) is our final stop in the west end—which offers little in the way of tranquility. It is a rugrat madhouse, buzzing with prepubescent kids enjoying their first taste of hormones—squealing, yelling, running. Admittedly, this is a family entertainment center with video games, skill games, and the like—the minigolf course is kind of an afterthought, wedged near the miniboat pool. But with trucks on I-40 roaring by a few yards away, kids screaming, toddlers stealing your balls, and kids revving miniboat engines, it is not an easy course in which to concentrate on refining your stroke. In fact, we suggest you pass on this rather dull course unless you have kids to entertain, in which case it might offer some respite.

Finally, we were free to venture out to minigolf heaven, the promised land of putt-putting. Some say these infamous cities are blots on the once-pristine mountain land they occupy. Well, of course they are—but Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg do have great minigolf courses, ones that will make an enthusiast's blood rush to his or her extremities. The only problems are hellish traffic—families apparently come from all over the world just to enjoy our own particular T-shirt shops and car museums—and choice. There are a lot of minigolf courses to partake of here, and it would take many days to play them all. In order to keep this article mercifully brief, we've narrowed our selection here to the ones that we feel are a cut above the competition.

First (and perhaps foremost, depending on your tastes) there is HILLBILLY GOLF in Gatlinburg. Truly, this must be one of the most beautiful minigolf courses in the country. Built onto the side of a mountain ridge, you must first ride a tram to the top in order to golf your way down. Once you start the course, you'll immediately be immersed in cool, shady serenity—you've left the sweating masses of rude tourists below and you're now in a tree-filled haven. Suddenly, the mind clears, the muscles relax, and you become one with nature.

The course itself is a tour de force of minigolf design. Rather than import incongruous elements into this mountain retreat, the designers stayed true to the "hillbilly" theme, employing many of the hallmarks of Appalachian culture. Instead of dinosaurs, the obstacles include such folk items as outhouses, moonshine stills, farming implements, etc. Most impressive is how the course utilizes the actual contours of the ridge itself to determine the descent angles of some of its shots. Hillbilly Golf is the Pebble Beach of the minigolf world, a fact that every East Tennessean should be proud of.

Next we have JURASSIC GOLF in Pigeon Forge—which, esthetically speaking, is the complete polar opposite of Hillbilly Golf. Instead of classy design, it offers pure, uncut minigolf camp in the tawdriest tradition. What else can you say about a course that offers a humongous purple mountain with a flowing stream being straddled by misshapen dinosaurs? It is here that you can attain the truest minigolf high as you putt up a man-made mountain that overlooks the detritus of Pigeon Forge's tourist culture, all swathed in a curtain of car exhaust. When you want to get down and dirty, Jurassic Golf offers the cheapest thrills on the minigolf parkway.

Finally, there is ADVENTURE GOLF, also in Pigeon Forge. This unique course offers the best of both worlds—the fanciful obstacles of fantasy golf combined with clever shot designs. Clearly, the owners have spent the big bucks on its design and construction, for its giant creatures look much more stylish and more solid to boot. There's the giant octopus with its writhing tentacles, the grounded pirate ship with a gaping cannon ball crater in its hull (notice the mist of water pouring out that looks like smoke!), the lunging shark, and (of course) the towering tyrannosaurus rex. The designer's respect for the game is apparent with every lovingly crafted obstacle—notice the joyful flourishes on the miniature Taj Mahal, the look of cold death in the shark's black eye...it's enough to bring tears of appreciation.

And then, suddenly, it's over. We're out of courses. Exhausted, we return to civilization. We may have won this round of minigolf conquest, but we're sure that somewhere out there someone is creating a new challenge, a new tyrannosaur, a new course...

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