You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
If I asked you to name the most culturally dominant sport in America, which one would you pick? We spend tens of billions annually on superbowl parties. Baseball’s most popular nickname is “America’s Pastime.” But I think a sneaky contender for number one might be golf. I don’t mean that they have the most famous pro athletes, or the most watched events on television. I mean if you look at the effects it has on the lives of the average American, golf has to be the most pervasive of any game we’ve come up with so far.
Consider the landscape of the typical golf course. Immediately, you picture some scattered trees, ponds, and most of all, a short, dense carpet of grass. These scene settings, especially the grass, are lifted straight from golf’s birthplace, Scotland. The U.K’s most northern lands are often overcast, rainy, and tend to have mild winters and summers, all perfect conditions to create grass so thick, you just want to cut it down to a spiky little mat, and roll a ball around on it. Incidentally, lawn bowling also arose from the same country.
On the other side of the Atlantic, there are few places with a climate exactly alike to Scotland. And yet, we’ve never really adapted the game of golf to the diversity of environments in which it’s enjoyed, quite the opposite, in fact. Compare this with other sports: Somehow, even the highest level of professional tennis can be played on such disparate surfaces as clay, grass, and asphalt, but golf is always the same. From Phoenix to Fargo, we’ve terraformed little patches of this country into mini-Scotlands, and we aren’t even satisfied with keeping it within the confines of the sport. The American grass lawn was born of a desire to have a little piece of the golf course at home, no matter how not-at-home that grass actually is. Fun fact: Kentucky Bluegrass, one of the most popular and recognizable turfgrass species, is from Europe somewhere. Go figure.
But the pervasiveness of golf culture goes beyond how we’ve designed the better part of a continent. Golfing, recreationally, is its own huge thing. If you have a relative who you need to buy father’s day gifts for, and they happen to golf even occasionally, you’re set for life for gift ideas. Golf has somehow become the stereotypical dad activity, rivaled, perhaps, only by fishing, and there’s a whole industry set up to profit from it.
You can walk into Kohls right now, and buy from a selection of gifts for the golfer in your life. There’s a mug where the handle is somehow a golf club, a necktie with a pattern of golf imagery, socks that say “do not disturb, I’m watching golf” on the soles. These, presumably will be read while the man wearing them lays, feet up, in a recliner. There are a variety of portable putting greens, sized to fit compactly in the home, or office. There are even ones that are specially shaped, with a shortened club, meant to be used while sitting on the toilet.
No expense can be too great for the avid golfer. People can and do plan whole vacations which are essentially golf tours. Alabama’s whole tourism strategy right now is a sort of one-two punch of: “come down and see all the places where we made life hard for Martin Luther King, and then while you’re down here, why don’t y’all play a round of golf?” I’m paraphrasing, but I’ve seen so many of those ads this year.
Again, with the possible exception of fishing, there’s no other amateur sport that pervades American culture like this. I bet some of your dads have played on their local slow-pitch softball team. If that’s you, have you ever gotten him softball socks? If your dad plays in a weekly dart league, he maybe has one mug with a dart-shaped handle, but I bet you had to look online to buy it. Golf is unique in the way its imagery has spread absolutely everywhere, and I kind of love that about it. I want a bit of that in my life. And what better way to dip my toe into being a golf guy than with a miniaturized version of the sport.
I’ve been playing a lot of mini golf recently, and having a blast. When the Scots first split it off from regular golf, I don’t think they realized what they had on their hands. In fairness, they were too busy trying to create a version of the game where women didn’t have to commit the indignity of raising a club above their waists. That’s real, look it up. But mini golf might really be the ideal version of the game. It has most of the same mechanics that make its older brother fun, with most of the downsides stripped away. At its most basic, miniature golf takes the principles of golf course design, and passes them through an “oops, all putting greens” filter. There are still courses like this around, just grass, no green carpet. This is already great, way more environmentally friendly than a full sized course.
But this only begins to explore the benefits of miniature golf. In shrinking the game down, it no longer has to take a full landscaping company to build a course. It’s ambitious, but a dedicated person with the right resources and talent at their disposal could create eighteen holes all by themselves. This means that mini golf can kind of be whatever you want, and that extends beyond just its built environment.
Golf, as a sport, was already pretty age-inclusive, but mini-golf is for everybody. It doesn’t require the player to put much power in their swing, so basically anybody that can hold a club can give it a shot. Additionally, there’s no right way to play mini golf. On the same course, you might see kids running around, pushing their ball like they’re playing floor hockey, and actual dedicated golfers, laser focused on improving their short game.
For those who want to take it really seriously, there’s the U.S. Professional Mini Golf Association. Every year, professional mini-golfers play in their own version of the Masters Tournament and U.S. Open. There are thousands of dollars on the line, and these people play like it. An average winning 18-hole round comes in with a score around 27 to 30, which is a crazy number of holes in one. We actually have three USPMGA member courses in Wisconsin, one of which is Madison’s own Vitense Golfland, but you’re unlikely to see a pro tournament grace our city anytime soon.
The mini golf Masters is in October, and the U.S. Open is in May. Those are actually some of Wisconsin’s best weather months, but when you’ve got the option to host the tournaments in Appalachian Tennessee, or coastal South Carolina instead, I can see how we’d get consistently passed up.
But you don’t need to get on a plane to play the best mini golf this country has to offer. In no particular order, here are a few mini golf courses you can work into a weekend trip.
At six hours away from Madison, Big Stone Mini Golf stretches this list a bit, but if you’re in the area, it’s worth the trip. The course is located in the wooded countryside, west of Minneapolis, and its big feature is the sculptures. These aren’t your normal mini-golf giraffes, and windmills, the sculptures are massive creations of iron, stone, and concrete. My favorite hole takes place entirely under the hull of a flipped fishing boat, and at the end of the course, you shoot into a ball-sized lazy river. The stream slowly pulls your ball along, until you reach the hole in the center. It then disappears with the most satisfying little “bloop!” into a holding box below.
A little closer in Minnesota is the course outside Lark Toys, in the small town of Kellogg. Lark is a great toy store in its own right, but their golf course also punches above its weight. Its design isn’t flashy, relying mostly on water and terrain to provide obstacles. However, you do get to play through a waterfall-covered cave, which is pretty sweet. Also, their scorecard presents a series of “Goofy Golf” challenges, optional rules which take effect on odd numbered holes, things like “take your first swing with your eyes closed,” or “use your putter like a pool cue.” These provide great variety, especially for people who might have already played through the course once.
My favorite local course has to be Timber Falls, in the Wisconsin Dells. It’s almost literally overshadowed by the Pirate’s Cove Adventure Golf next door, but Timber Falls is solid, regardless of the competition. One of its three courses is specifically marked as having “scenic views,” but all three overlook the bluffs of the Wisconsin River, so you really can’t go wrong.
As far as Illinois goes, Chicagoland has a lot of great options for mini golf, even a course in Millennium park, the heart of the city. But one that I’ve been dying to check out, I swear I didn’t plan that as a pun, is in the basement of Ahlgrim Family Funeral Services. It’s still very much a working funeral home, but members of the public can visit their extensive rec room, by appointment.
I hope to see you out on the green somewhere soon. If you see me, say hi, and suggest a topic for another Parks and Landmarks. Or, if you’d rather, you can always email me, at email@example.com. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys.