Minigolf: From Summer Holidays to the Summer Olympics?
David Gough with David Foster, Alan Gallen, Darren Burke, & Barry Devlin
For nearly 100 years Crazy Golf, Adventure Golf and Miniature Golf have been providing entertainment to millions of people all over the world, but it was in 1953 that Paul Bongni standardised the sport and patented the name "Minigolf" and thus set the wheels in motion for a sport that is currently:
"The 9th most popular 'leisure-time' sport activity of the Germans"
- (World Minigolfsport Federation, Information Brochure, 2002, Page 1)
Even though minigolf in its present form has been around for nearly 50 years, its worldwide profile is virtually non-existent despite the fact that there are an estimated 40,000 organised minigolfers worldwide and more than 15 million people play the game annually, in Germany alone (WMF Brochure, 2002). In Britain and Ireland in particular the game is viewed as merely a holiday past time, a state of affairs that Andy Miller summed up aptly in his book "Tilting at Windmills, How I Tried to Stop Worrying and Love Sport":
"Crazy-golf courses are as much a part of the ailing British beach holiday as donkey rides and a bucket and spade“
- (Miller 2002, Page 38)
In spite of this attitude Miller also goes on to give credence to the development of minigolf as a sport, talking of the desire to win experienced by players of all ability, in even the friendliest of games:
"You pretend it's a laugh, but secretly you want to annihilate your dad/younger brother/older sister/friends. You want to win."
- (Miller 2002, Page 38)
Andy Miller in fact, competed for Great Britain at the World Championships in Riga, Latvia in 2000, finishing last, 28 shots behind the nearest competitor in a field of over 100. Miller represented the British Miniature Golf Association who, founded in the late 1990's by Peter Parr, strive to publicise the game and have it recognised and funded by Sport England. The BMGA is recognised by the World Minigolfsport Federation and holds competitions, including the international British Open, on what it terms “skill based“ crazy and adventure golf courses. This is because there are no WMF recognised courses in Britain.
Unfortunately Sport England refuses to recognise more than one variant of a sport, regarding minigolf as a golf variant. Minigolfers refute this claiming the sport, although similar, is in its own right, a different game. The fact is that most serious minigolfers have little or no interest in the conventional game and vice-versa. Unfortunately, Sport England so far has not listened to this reasoning and a change of mind looks unlikely in the near future. The Oxford Dictionary seems to agree with Sport England's stance defining minigolf as:
"An informal version of golf played on a series of short obstacle courses."
- (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2002)
This is despite the fact that there are professional players in America playing in tournaments where often the prize fund is in excess of $100,000. In fact American television's premier sports channel, ESPN often includes these bigger tournaments in their listings. As well as a professional circuit in the United States, there is a highly competitive European semi-professional circuit. In countries such as Germany, Austria, Sweden and Finland the government subsidises players, who take one day per week off work to practise their putting. These players also have quite extensive backup teams including coaches, physiotherapists and sometimes even sports psychologists. European and World Championships have been contested since 1959 and 1991 respectively, and still in Britain the sport is, to this day, fighting for recognition from those who control the sporting purse strings.
It is the intention of this essay to:
1 Explain, with illustrations, the different variants of miniature golf
2 Explain, with illustrations, the standardisation expected by the World Minigolfsport Federation:
- Course Regulations
- Specialised Equipment
3 Chart the history of minigolf:
- Explaining its development from a fun, family and tourist orientated activity through to its standardisation as a competitive sport and the foundation of the World Minigolfsport Federation
- Explain its position in the psyche of the sporting mad public of 2002 and the projected future of the sport including the international governing body's hopes of a participation at the Olympic Games
Adventure Golf, Crazy Golf, Miniature Golf and Minigolf: Definitions, Differences and Similarities
Adventure Golf, Crazy Golf, Miniature Golf, Minigolf. Whatever the game, the rules and principles are similar but there are some subtle and some not so subtle differences.
Adventure Golf, is a tourist and family orientated game that originated in America. It is played on themed courses with manmade models, ornaments and gimmicks, dotted along each hole. Pirate and Jungle themes are the most popular and these often see holes created on mock pirate ships or in caves with replica stalactites hanging overhead.
Crazy Golf is the type of course usually associated with British seaside towns and holiday resorts like Butlin's. Crazy Golf courses can be constructed in a smaller area than adventure golf and the style of play is very different. The game concentrates on shorter holes with different obstacles on each hole. These obstacles can range from windmills and tunnels to smaller models of famous bridges, buildings and monuments.
Miniature Golf is a generic American term that can be used to describe any variants of the game played in the United States, Crazy Golf, Minigolf, Adventure Golf and the "Tom Thumb" and "Putt Putt" Systems, which you will hear about later.
While the previous two versions of the game are widely recognised as past-times and a great way to spend a day out, Minigolf is the only variant recognised as an official sport. The main establishing factor is that Minigolf courses are standardised whereas before these yardsticks were set different towns, districts and countries had different course types and rules. There are 5 course types recognised by the World Minigolfsport Federation (WMF), the sports governing body, and while Cobigolf and Stargolf are not sanctioned in world ranking events, Eternit, Beton and Swedish Felt are.
World Minigolfsport Federation Recognised Courses:
A Swiss architect by the name of Paul Bongni invented Beton courses in 1953. He had decided to attempt to standardise minigolf. He did this by inventing the system, which features a smooth concrete putting surface and continuous perimeter boundary of galvanised steel. In theory each Beton hole can be completed in just one shot, although the length and difficulty of the holes means that any score under 25 is considered excellent, and the world record stands at 22.
Perfect Scores are also common on Eternit Courses. In fact the World Record is a spectacular 4 perfect rounds in a row. Courses have a cement-fibre putting surface and fibreglass obstacles. There are 25 approved Eternit holes, any 18 of which may feature on a course. One of the more spectacular holes involves the player hitting the ball up a ramp, through the air and into a net a number of feet away. On this particular hole, specialist clubs and tees, unlike a normal putter can be used.
The Swedish Felt run course is a course usually green felt encased in a wooden surround. 18 Holes usually contain any of 26 standardised obstacles. As the name suggests it first came to prominence in Sweden and the Scandinavian Countries but these courses can now be found all over Europe.
Cobigolf and Stargolf:
Cobigolf has one or two small gates in front of each obstacle. Stargolf takes it name from the shape of lane 18, otherwise it is very similar to minigolf, but the lanes are only 8 m long and 0.9 m wide. These systems are very rare and although the International Federation approves them they are not used in World Championship or European Championship play.
Although the World Minigolfsport Federation permits the use of a normal golf putter in sanctioned events, serious Minigolf players use specialised clubs. As opposed to metal golf putters, minigolf putters have rubber heads or metal heads with a rubber insert in order to increase “feel” for the players. In order to get out of awkward or tricky situations some clubs have heads that rotate 360 degrees.
There are 7 different suppliers of tournament sanctioned minigolf balls. The serious minigolfer will usually carry a bag with anything up to 100 balls. These balls vary in size, weight, bounce, lacquer, roughness, hardness and colour. Some minigolfers cool their balls in chilling cabinets so that they are at optimum temperature for play and specially manufactured balls which remain at a set temperature are also available. On Eternit or Beton courses it is normal to use a different ball for each hole while the use of more than 2 balls on a Swedish Felt course is rare.
The history of golf as a lawn game dates back at least as far as the 17th Century. Exactly where it was founded is debated to this day, and there is historical data showing that a similar game was played in both Holland and Scotland. The basic idea of these games was the same, to transport a ball, first with one, and later with several variously shaped clubs, from a set starting point or "tee" in to a hole from 100 to 500 yards away in the fewest possible hits or "strokes".
Since either 9 or 18 holes have to be completed per round, the distance a golfer has to cover can amount to several kilometres. Obviously this takes a lot of time. The design and maintenance of a golf course is very costly, therefore membership of a golf club is comparably expensive. Consequently a person who wants to play golf must have two things: a lot of time and a lot of money. It was this background that gave rise to the first considerations for a smaller version of the game. Shorter course lengths based on the same principal such as Par 3 golf or Pitch and Putt can be considered boring. Only the idea of replacing a lawn golf course with a much smaller course with highly imaginative obstacles gave the game real entertainment value for those without much time and money. Fairytale or comic figures, miniature models of famous monuments or buildings or artificial landscapes made up the impediments.
It is said that it was James Barber of Pinehurst North Carolina, USA who first conceived this concept. Miniaturising and intensifying the game of golf and packing all the thrills and challenges of eighteen hole golf into a game that could be played on just a small amount of land. This would be more than a simple putting green, providing unique hazards and dangers with the pleasures of skilled competition. With the help of an amateur architect by the name of Edward H. Wiswell, a miniature golf course (reputed to be the worlds first) was laid out on the grounds of Barber's estate. Legend has it that when the landscaping was done, Mr. Barber gazed out upon his creation and announced proudly, "This'll do!" it was from this proclamation that the name of the course: "Thistle Dhu" was derived. Mr Barber although probably unknowingly had created the first embryonic stage in what was to be the growth of a sport called Miniature Golf. Thistle Dhu however was locked away on Barber's private estate meaning a growth in public affection for the game was still some years away. “Garden Golf” was the name most frequently associated during this period.
However, sports historians are still unsure if Barber's course was the first, and this was questioned even more in Andy Millers book when he came across some information that seemed to promote the idea that the sport was created in England. When a fellow minigolf enthusiast informed him of an article dated 4 years before James Barber built "Thistle Dhu":
"…Tim Davies has brought to my attention an article that appeared in the Illustrated London News on 8 June 1912, entitled 'Bridge, Stick, Tunnel and Box: A Golf Game for Putters' with an illustration by 'our special artist A.C. Michael', entitled 'At the Garden Party: An Exciting Moment of Gofstacle'. The illustration shows a group of flannelled young chaps enjoying a game that looks suspiciously like crazy golf, with the following caption: 'Gofstacle is played with golf balls and putters. Four balls go to the set and these are coloured like croquet balls. The obstacles to be negotiated include hoops, rings, a tunnel, a bridge and a box which has to be entered up an incline. It is played like golf croquet, and may also be played as is golf, the obstacles taking the place of holes. It is claimed for it that it is calculated to improve putting. Its popularity is undoubted.'
- (Miller, 2002, Page 219)
However we do know that in 1922 the green putting surface, which has now become synonymous with miniature golf, was patented when Thomas McCulloch Fairbairn built his own miniature golf course on a plantation in Mexico. The dry arid climate hampered its construction and after some trial and error he stumbled upon an ideal artificial putting surface, which consisted of cottonseed hulls, sand, oil and green dye. The innovation continued throughout that decade when for the first time “rails” or “barriers” were introduced to confine the ball within a boundary.
In 1926 the first trade name course was manufactured and patented under the name of “Tom Thumb Golf” by inn keeping couple Garnet and Frieda Carter. It was using Fairbairn's patented playing surface that the Carters created their miniature golf empire. John Wilson charted the rise of the Carter's 700-acre Holiday Resort on top of Lookout Mountain on the borders of Tennessee and Georgia. In Lookout: The Story of an Amazing Mountain, Wilson tells the story of how Garnet Carter stumbled upon the idea of creating the miniature golf course. He wrote:
"Before the Fairyland Golf Course was opened, one impatient guest at the Fairyland Inn suggested to Garnet Carter that he construct a putting green in front of the Inn. Carter readily agreed to this idea and, as he was designing the green, he noticed some extra tile and sewer pipe lying near some houses which were being built nearby. Experimenting, he found that a golf ball could be hit so as to roll through the pipes. So Garnet Carter decided to add the pipes as part of the green and thus the worldwide sport of miniature golf was born."
- (John Wilson, Lookout: The Story of an Amazing Mountain cited in A Wonder History of Miniature Golf, Part 1)
It was after this that the Carter's began to cleverly construct the hazards and obstacles associated with the minigolf courses we know today. The elves, gnomes and other fairy-tale figures, Little Red Riding Hood amongst them created great amusement in children and adults alike.
Wilson later went on to speculate that Frieda's contribution had been more than just painting and designing the gnomes and fairy-tale figures:
"[a] final account maintains it was really Freda, a designer in her own right, who, in 1926 built the course solely for her own amusement…In addition to reinforcing the never-never land atmosphere the Inn strove to create, Frieda saw her 'Tom Thumb' course on the front lawn as a way to amuse the 'golf widows' whose husbands deserted them for the real links."
- (John Wilson, Lookout: The Story of an Amazing Mountain cited in A Wonder History of Miniature Golf, Part 1)
Possibly no greater tribute could be paid to the Carter's work than when one website journalist wrote:
"They gave us the kind of miniature golf that Peter Pan might play with Wendy and the Lost Boys."
- (A Wonder History of Minigolf Part 1)
We will probably never know for definite whether Garnet or Frieda invented their "Tom Thumb" course but in Miniature Golf circles it is generally accepted that both husband and wife played a part.
By mid 1930 Tom Thumb Golf had more than 25,000 courses built across the United States, but by then the 1929 Wall Street Crash was having a profound effect on the American economy, and by the early 1930's, miniature golf underwent a downturn in popularity because of the fiscal crisis.
It took 20 years for the sport to be rejuvenated. The post-war baby boom of the 1950’s and the sprawl of suburbia ignited a quiet rebirth. Miniature golf was now recognised as wholesome fun for the whole family. The concept of stunt courses, moving hazards and whimsical hole designs emerged stronger than ever. However in 1953, disgusted by what he considered trick shots, Mr. Don Clayton founded Putt-Putt Golf and Games. Mr. Clayton was America's most vocal advocate of miniature golf as a serious sport and so designed a new and improved course that only allowed and rewarded straight, accurate putting with none of the gimmicks. Putt-Putt Golf and games went on to become one of the United States' first franchised roadside businesses.
It was in that same year that a Swiss architect called Paul Bongni first patented the name "Minigolf". He had set out to create a system, which was similar to the system Don Clayton had advocated in the sense that it was designed to show minigolf as a serious sport and reward the skill rather than luck element.
Five years later a German called Albert Hess invented Eternit courses. Originally made of a hardened beton and asbestos (asbestos has since been replaced) mix it was smaller than Bongni's courses and had the added advantage of being transportable.
Miniature golf had in fact been played on mainland Europe for a number of years before Bongni's standardisation. This is evident from an article written in 1926, which said:
"In the Spa town of Wittenbergen, on the lawn in front of the beach, a small miniature golf course has been opened. An enterprising young man, Fr. Shröeder, brought the minigolf game back from America, where it is very popular…the game is still new, and there are many still undecided onlookers…"
- (Unknown Reference cited on Bad-Muender Minigolf Website)
It was the Eternit and Beton courses that would later become recognised by the sports governing body, but despite the relative success of these systems and of Don Clayton's "Putt-Putt" the revival of wacky, animated, trick hazards was being led by Al and Ralph Lomma. It was the belief of the two brothers that the challenge of eluding the hazards by that necessity for split-second timing was far greater than the skill required for straight putting. This vision proved to be the secret behind their phenomenal success. In 1955 Al Lomma founded Lomma Enterprises and a year later they built their first course in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The Lomma's course was unique as it, was one of, if not the first to consist of moving obstacles, such as windmills, which could block the path of the ball if the players timing wasn't exactly right. It wasn’t long before they were among the largest manufacturers of miniature golf courses in the world selling over 4,000 courses worldwide.
Growth continued throughout the early 1960's when the booming business that miniature golf was attracted the attention of professional golfer, Arnold Palmer. Palmer, in association with his agent Mark McCormack, revolutionary in sports management and creator of the International Marketing Group, saw the sport as a good way to extend the Arnold Palmer brand. By 1964 there were 125 Arnold Palmer courses all over America and in 1965 he opened his first course in Britain. Coventry was the site of the first course but soon he would have a chain throughout the England, Scotland and Wales. The courses were the first to comprise miniature versions of actual championship golf holes such as the sixteenth at Augusta National, Georgia and the eleventh at Royal Troon, Scotland. Despite these mini holes Palmer courses didn't alienate the everyday minigolfer as his courses also had models such as rockets, a water wheel and of course the requisite windmill.
The World Minigolfsport Federation:
In 1963 the International Minigolf Federation was formed when the two different national federations in Germany merged to form one, more powerful body. The European Championships had been contested since 1959 but it wasn't until the 1970's the standardised version of the sport first began to grow and soon a popularity surge in Austria, Switzerland, Italy and later Holland occurred. The inaugural World Championships were contested in 1991 and in 1993 the IMF was reorganized into the World Minigolfsport Federation when both the United States and Japan joined.
"The dilemma of the WMF has been the difficulties in establishing financial sources for many of the countries who want to expand into the sport of minigolf"
- (WMF Brochure, 2002)
The federation, since its initiation has been under constant pressure to find sponsors and although agreements have been reached with a number of companies (usually suppliers of minigolf equipment or courses) there is still much financial pressure placed on the organisation. It is the hope of WMF that the experience of the business and sponsorship worlds that the United States federation has brought to the WMF will help in their quest to spread the popularity of minigolf.
The Future: (2002 and Beyond)
In the long term it is the goal of the World Minigolfsport Federation to have minigolf included as an Olympic sport. In October 2000 the federation made a big leap towards this goal. During the 34th annual congress of the General Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF/AGFIS) the World Minigolfsport Federation was granted provisional membership in a unanimous vote. Shortly after, when Slovenia became the 30th National Member of the WMF full membership, and the voting rights that go with it, was achieved. GAISF is, after the International Olympic Committee, the biggest multi national organisation of sports federations.
This step was so significant in the history of minigolf because according to the Olympic Charter, the International Olympic Committee recognises all International Federations, which meet the conditions, and criteria set down by GAISF. While the IOC recognises the WMF through its affiliation with GAISF the rules and regulations set down in the Olympic Charter means that Minigolf can't be included in the Beijing Games of 2008. This is because Chapter 5, Rule 52 Section 1.1.1 states:
"Only sports widely practised by men in at least seventy-five countries and on four continents and by women in at least forty countries and on three continents, may be included in the programme of the Games of the Olympiad"
This means that although the WMF recognises National Associations on 5 continents its 30 members and affiliates 14, 44 in total, will have to be increased to at least 70. This will be a difficult task because the sport does not receive any substantial media coverage, even in the countries, in which it is popular. Even if the WMF succeeds in gaining 26 more members, Chapter 5, Rule 52, Section 1.1.4 of the Olympic Charter states:
"Sports are admitted to the programme of the Olympic Games at least seven years before specific Olympic Games in respect of which no change thereafter will be permitted."
Therefore upon successfully gaining more than 70 members and subsequently convincing the International Olympic Committee of its validity as a possible member, Minigolf must wait at least 7 years to even be considered for participation in a specific Olympics. These problems mean that it is unlikely, unless there is a massive surge in the world popularity of Minigolf that we will not see it as a part of the summer games until at least 2016, or 2020, if ever.
A more realistic goal for the WMF would be to seek inclusion in the World Games. The World Games are held every 4 years and are a celebration of some of the many sports such as Aikido, Racquetball, Billiards and Water Skiing, which do not have Olympic recognition. The World Games are recognised the world over as a good breeding ground for sports seeking Olympic entry mainly because, the World Games organisers, the International World Game Association (IWGA) remain:
"Under the Patronage of the International Olympic Committee"
- (IWGA, Official Website, 2002)
Since the IWGA's inception in 1981, sports such as Badminton, Baseball and Triathlon have graduated from the World Games into the Summer Olympics. The IWGA's Official site also says that the only requisites for sports joining their association are:
"The main requirement for IWGA membership is being a full member of the General Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) … The only other requirement is that the (disciplines of) sports represented by the Federation are not currently on the program of the Olympic Games.
- (IWGA, Official Website, 2002)
As minigolf meets both of these stipulations it seems that the World Minigolfsport Federation's next step could be joining the IWGA and putting their sport on the world stage via the World Games. In doing this it would create the image of Minigolf as a serious sport in the eyes of the world and therefore make one giant leap towards Olympic inclusion.
1 "Tilting at Windmills, How I Tried to Stop Worrying and Love Sport", by Andy Miller, Published by Viking an imprint of Penguin Books, London, England, 2002. ISBN: 0-670-89641-1.
2 "Concise Oxford English Dictionary", Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2002. ISBN: 0-19860572-2.
1 "Crazy Golf - Serious Money", by Tim Davies, Published on page 37 in “Mensa Magazine”, January 2001.
2 " Who are you calling crazy?", by Will Buckley, Published in the "Observer on Sunday" Sunday 3 November 2002. Obtained from the Guardian Unlimited Archive, Online at:
3 "Lilli-putt-ian Landmarks - History and Significance of Miniature Golf Courses", by Susan R. Chandler, Published in "Cultural Resource Management Online", Volume 23 Number 10.
4 "Until March Madness…there's mini-golf" by Geoffrey Chepiga, Published in The "Yale Herald Online - Eli-torial ".
5 "Big Time Mini-Golfer" by Cassie Ferguson, Published in "The Harvard University Gazette", October 30, 1997. Obtained online at: http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/1997/10.30/BigTimeMini-Gol.html
6 "Forget Tiger Woods. Miniature golf is aiming to be the next big thing" by Mary Elizabeth Williams, Published in "Salon Magazine" August 14, 1997. Obtained online at: http://www.salonmagazine.com/aug97/news/news970814.html
1 "The Olympic Charter" Chapter 5, Section 5, Paragraph 52, Part 1.1.1, and Part 1.1.4. Obtained from the Official Website of the International Olympic Movement.
1 World Minigolfsport Federation - Obtained from Alfred Schrod, WMF Secretary General.
2 Fun-Sports Mini-Golf Course Manufacturers - Obtained from Dr. Gerhard Zimmermann, Fun - Sports Managing Director.
3 3d Mini-Golf Equipment Manufacturers - Obtained from Dr. Gerhard Zimmermann, 3d Managing Director.
1 "Olympic Charter", by Karen Hennessy, 2001/2002, Organisation and Policy of Sport, BSc. Sports Management 1, University College Dublin.
1 Minigolf Information Site:
2 World Minigolfsport Federation, Official Site:
3 British Mini-Golf Association (BMGA), Official Site:
4 Professional Miniature Golf Association, Official Site:
5 3d Mini-Golf, Mini-Golf Equipment Manufacturers:
6 Lomma Miniature Golf Course Manufacturer:
7 A Wonder History of Minigolf Parts 1 & 2:
8 A Wonder History of Goofy Golf:
9 Bad-Muender, Minigolf Resort, Germany:
10 Official Website of the GAISF/AGFIS - The General Association of International Sports Federations:
11 Official Website of the International Olympic Committee
12 Official Website of the International World Games Association:
13 Online Sports Information - Crazy Golf by Graham Brown
14 Guide To Minigolf - Finish Website
15 Online Sports Information - Try My Sport...Mini Golf
All websites accessed during the period 2 November 2002 to 2 December 2002