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The surprisingly subversive history of mini golf

  
Via:  Nerm_L  •  one month ago  •  3 comments

By:   Erin Blakemore (National Geographic)

The surprisingly subversive history of mini golf
No sport is quite as whimsical as mini golf. But it came about as a way to make golfing accessible to everyone—regardless of your sex, race, or class.

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Have you ever putted into an oversized shoe or lost your golf ball in an artificially colored stream? If so, you've likely played one of the most popular sports of its day, miniature golf or mini golf—an amusement whose origins are as contentious as whether you got that hole in one.

One thing that isn't contested is miniature golf's surprisingly subversive history. Blocked from golf courses by their sex, race, or class, people at the sport's margins actually helped push golf to the masses—and gave it its spirited sense of fun. Here's more about how the sport became so inclusive.

Women and the origins of miniature golf


The origin story of mini golf is up for debate. Some track the idea to the private homes of elites in both Europe and the United States, while others credit the game's development to its commercial birth during the 1920s. But one group has always been integral to the sport: women.

Women's participation in golf is as old as golf itself, which emerged in Scotland during the Middle Ages and was formalized in the 18th century. Women were interested in the sport, but they were largely blocked from participating due to the strictures of their times, which condemned active women as "unladylike" and incompetent. As historian Jane George writes, women's presence on golf courses "was regarded as a distraction for the serious male golfer." Though prestigious golf clubs did allow women, they were relegated to fundraising, social events, and supporting the play of their male family members.

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Some argue that mini golf got its start at the Ladies Putting Green—dubbed "The Himalayas"—at the St Andrews golf course in Scotland. This small and bumpy course contained obstacles and was deemed a more suitable alternative for women to play golf away from men. Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: GMC-13-40-1

This sex-based segregation frustrated women—and helped spark one of the precursors to miniature golf. At the legendary St. Andrews golf course in Scotland, women banned from the links began playing on the course designated for caddies. Their husbands, however, objected to their wives interacting with caddies, whom they considered as social inferiors, so they designated a separate, more "suitable" course for women: a small course so bumpy, it was known as the Himalayas. And so, in 1867, about a hundred women joined together to create the St. Andrews Ladies' Golf Club.

The putting green, designed by Scottish golf legend Old Tom Morris, had nine holes and obstacles like a stream and bridge. Well-heeled women putted there during monthly, lavishly catered competitions, vying for prizes like opera glasses and rings. Still open today, the Himalayas' small size presaged the putting craze to come—and the role marginalized people would play in the sport's development.

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Women playing golf at West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., circa 1930. The city's first nine-hole golf course opened in 1920 as part of a municipal movement to democratize the sport—yet the city's Black residents were initially only permitted to play the courses half a day each week.Photograph by Historical Society of Washington, DC

Mini golf for the masses


As golf spread from the United Kingdom to the United States, its first players were elite men, mostly members of exclusive Gilded-Age gentlemen's clubs. They established sports clubs—the forerunners of country clubs—both in their cities of residence and in their summer retreats such as Newport and Saratoga Springs.

Even as the social elite hurried to wall off their favorite sport from the masses, golf was filtering into the mainstream, attracting people of all classes, races, and genders. Cities began building municipal golf courses, starting with New York's Van Cortlandt Park in 1895. As sports historian George B. Kirsch notes, the sport got an even bigger boost after World War I, when a combination of increased leisure time, suburbanization, consumerism, and prosperity "generated new waves of enthusiasm" for golf. By the 1920s, golf had become a national craze.

But there was an issue with golf's popularity: space. The traditional golf course spreads across up to 200 acres—land that many cities, and even wealthy private estates, simply lacked. And that dilemma is what many say led to the real origins of miniature golf—a sport more whimsical, and more accessible, than upper-class golfers could have foreseen.

British shipping magnate James Wells Barber, inadvertently helped usher a smaller version of the sport by building "Thistle Dhu" (This'll Do), a tiny 18-hole course in Pinehurst, North Carolina, on his estate in 1917. The mini course had natural and artificial obstacles and architectural and landscape flourishes that would influence later miniature golf courses.

Meanwhile, Garnet Carter, a hotel owner from Georgia, was testing out his own miniature form of golf. Carter's mini golf course designs, which he created in the mid-1920s with his wife, Frieda, took the idea of "miniature" to an extreme, featuring diminutive fairy-tale themed architectural elements and lots of garish statuary, neon lights, and fanciful hazards like hollowed-out logs and bridges watched over by gnome-like figures. The concept—complete with an artificial green made of cottonseed hulls—was so popular that Carter patented it, and the "Tom Thumb" golf course was born.

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Garnet Carter takes a putt on the original Tom Thumb miniature golf course on Lookout Mountain, Georgia. Carter and his wife Frieda invented these fanciful links filled with gnomes in the 1920s.Photo Courtesy Paul A. Hiener Collection (Acc. 318). Chattanooga Public Library.

Tom Thumb courses were different from the greens frequented by well-heeled golfers: The patented miniature courses needed just 2,100 square feet and could be installed indoors or outdoors. "Here indeed is the putting game that will whet the appetite of the most seasoned golfer and thrill to the finger tips the millions of Tom Thumb fans," blared a 1930 seeking investment in the indoor version of the game.

It was a hit: People began building their own, ever more lavish, mini golf courses nationwide. Soon, you could find miniature golf on rooftops and in public parks, and by the end of the 1930s, there were as many as 50,000 miniature attractions—often billed as "midget golf"—across the nation.

Even as the U.S. slumped into the Great Depression, the fad persisted. As pop culture historian Nancy Hendricks explains, the inexpensive game was seen as a way to "cure Depression blues," mimic the wealthy, and even make money for those who turned their own small plots of land into increasingly outlandish courses.

Civil rights on the mini course


Mini golf was now a legitimate national obsession. It didn't just attract white Americans: The diminutive game also intrigued Black golfers, who had long been involved in the sport in the U.S., first as enslaved caddies, then at segregated country clubs and some municipal courses. Historian Lane Demas notes that many of the 150 mini golf courses in New York City in 1930 were located in Harlem, many affiliated with legendary venues like the Apollo Theater and the Savoy. "Nearly every black enclave in the North experienced the miniature golf fad," Demas writes.

Mini golf also took off throughout the Jim Crow South. Locked out of white-owned country clubs, many serious Black golfers could only practice at mini golf facilities—just not those that were owned by white people. In response, Black community organizations built mini golf courses of their own.

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On June 29, 1941, three Black golfers—Asa Williams, George Williams, and Ceil R. Showell—walked onto the East Potomac Park Golf Course to challenge the segregation of public recreation areas in Washington, D.C. Their protest would lead to the desegregation of all of the District's municipal golf courses.Photograph by Washington National Record Center

Golf even played a landmark role in the desegregation of public recreation areas in the nation's capital—and a mini course was among the first to be desegregated. By 1941, Black golfers had already pushed for, and received, their own municipal golf courses in the District of Columbia, but the grounds were neglected and inferior to the courses for their white counterparts. That summer, a group of Black men attempted to play the segregated East Potomac Park municipal golf course in protest, only to be shouted down by white golfers.

In response to the incident, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes desegregated the park—including its miniature golf course—a first during the Jim Crow era. Icke also declared all of the District's federally funded golf courses integrated. Though it would take more than a decade for D.C. to integrate all of its public recreational facilities, the protest was a historic first for Black golfers.

Other miniature golf courses played a role in the history of the civil rights struggle as well; for example, a municipal mini golf course in St. Augustine, Florida, became the city's first public place open to Black people in 1964.

Since then, the sport has had its ups and downs. The car-crazy 1950s ushered in another golden era for the fanciful sport, but it faced a long decline as the 20th century waned.

Nevertheless, miniature golf—and its subversive spirit—continues to entertain both amateur and professional golfers alike. And it continues to provide an outlet to a wide swath of people: the National Golf Foundation estimates that 18 million people played mini golf in 2022 alone—45 percent of them female and 24 percent non-white.


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Nerm_L
Professor Expert
1  seeder  Nerm_L    one month ago

The hoity toity have looked down their noses at a lot of low-brow sports.  But everyman games like darts, horseshoes, bowling, and mini golf are actually a lot of fun.  

 
 
 
Robert in Ohio
Professor Guide
1.1  Robert in Ohio  replied to  Nerm_L @1    one month ago

What makes a sport an "everyman game" or a "Low-brow sport"

How is someone identified as "hoity toity"?

I play golf, darts and bowl now and then so where do I fall in your societal classes?

 
 
 
Robert in Ohio
Professor Guide
2  Robert in Ohio    one month ago

I forgot to mention - Ireally liked the article

An interesting footnote - 

A common misconception is that the word GOLF is an acronym for Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden. This is a 20th century joke and definitely not true.

Golf - Meaning of Word Golf - Scottish Golf History

 
 

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