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4 Creative Takes On Golf In America

The clubs, balls, vast verdant courses, garish outfits: Golf in America has arguably become rather ho-hum and predictable as the 2015 PGA Championship tournament tees off this week at Whistling Straits in Sheboygan, Wis.

But over the years, various people — in attempts to expand the American golfing experience — have fiddled and tinkered with the game as we know it. , foot golf and other innovations have received a lot of attention in recent years. Here are few more variations from the past:

1. Goofy Golf. Perhaps the goofiest variation on golf in America is, well, goofy golf. Surely created as an appreciation of — and surrender to — the game's mercurial and merciless qualities, goofy miniature golf courses can be found just about everywhere in the U.S. Papier-mache dinosaurs, windmills, loop-de-loops. Goofy golf courses make it OK for golfers and nongolfers to goof off and guffaw.

Miniature golf in America, USA Today points out, has a legitimate and storied history — harking back to the first putting course in 1867 at St. Andrews Links in Scotland and a diminutive course at Pinehurst, N.C., in 1916 — culminating in the 1954 founding of the Putt-Putt corporation. Putt-Putt skill-based golf courses are designed to help improve putting.

Many goofy miniature golf courses, on the other hand, are designed for children of all ages. The American game of "goofy golf" perhaps had its origins in the 1920s. In Waxahachie, Texas, the local Daily Light reported on Nov. 2, 1924, Texas golfers played a round of "goofy golf" — on a regular-length course — which encouraged boisterous behavior. The unruly rules included playing one hole entirely with a driver, another with a putter and one with just one hand. Over the decades, people played goofy golf on regular and miniature courses.

An indoor miniature course at the YMCA in Warren, Pa., circa 1935.
/ Library of Congress
Library of Congress
An indoor miniature course at the YMCA in Warren, Pa., circa 1935.

The popularity of goofy golf may have been helped in 1930 when evangelist Billy Sunday referred to the game as "freakish," the Indianapolis News reported on Aug. 30. By 1931, absurdly designed goofy golf miniature courses were opening here and there. During the 1930s, there was an indoors version featuring shrubs and bucolic mural walls at the YMCA in Warren, Pa.

But the courses really spread like crabgrass midcentury. The Peter Pan mini-golf course — with its outsized statue of Pan and a T. Rex — has been helping keep Austin, Texas, weird since it opened in 1948. Ken Phillips of Bloomington, Ill., began manufacturing prefab "Goofy Golf "courses, the Pantagraph reported on July 23, 1959. The goofy golf course — and miniature train that took passengers through Tarzan Land — in Panama City, Fla., made national news in the early 1960s, the News-Herald reported on Apr. 21, 1963.

Today you can find goofy golf courses with volcanoes, mythic creatures, pirates and sharks — and that's just in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

2. Marbles Golf.Marbles Golf — played as you might imagine, with small spheres and small holes in a small area — dates at least into the 19th century.

Writing in the 1884 book Games and Songs of American Children, William Wells Newell observed a popular game among mibsters — marbles shooters — that seemed to be the "reduction of a game with the ball, similar to 'golf.' "

Vintage photographs of Oklahomans in 1940 show men aiming marbles toward holes in the ground.

"Marbles Golf is best played on a woodland trail through a forest — at a park or campground," Michael C. Cohill of the in Akron, Ohio, tells NPR. "The path is already well-defined, hard-packed dirt ... has a few nice twists and turns, a few natural traps and barriers to play around."

And, Cohill adds, "it's always 10 degrees cooler in the woods."

3. Airplane Golf.By the 1910s, certain American golfers — such as Chick Evans and Francis Ouimet --were becoming bona fide celebrities. In 1916, Evans became the first amateur victor in both the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur tournaments. His rival, Francis Ouimet, won the U.S. Open in 1913 and the U.S. Amateur tournament in 1914.

The young Americans were considered two of the best players on earth. So in 1919, some enterprising promoter suggested putting them in the sky.

In a wild scheme, newspapers reported, organizers conspired to pit Evans and Ouimet against each other in a multistate match — playing one hole at 18 different courses — using two planes as airborne "golf carts." The New Castle Herald in Pennsylvania reported on April 5: "It is expected that this novel match will take, barring 'tail spins' or 'nose dives', at least two weeks to play, as the course, the longest in the world, is some 3,000 miles in length."

Perhaps that plan was the inspiration for another event that occurred four years later.

When Olympia Fields Country Club, near Chicago, christened its fourth 18-hole course in the summer of 1923, it dubbed itself the Largest Golf Club in the World. To commemorate the event — in Roaring '20s-style — the club staged a round of "airplane golf."

Two balls were dropped onto each hole — on the green or the fairway — and golfers on the ground marked the spot, then played a replacement ball into the cup. According to the Indianapolis News of June 26: "Many members of the club condemned the game as a distortion of golf that would ruin the courses and wreck the finesse of the players who participated."

4. Jailhouse Golf.Some golf courses can be like prisons — with moats and traps and lots of rough areas.

Others are built at prisons. In 1931 inmates created a miniature golf course at the prison in Auburn, N.Y., the Mirror of Altoona, Pa., reported on July 1. Other miniature courses were reported over the years in Texas and New Mexico. One miniature layout — kept secret from the warden — was discovered at the Massachusetts State Prison in 1955. Two officials were suspended for lowering clubs from a wall to prisoners, the Record-Herald of Washington Court House, Ohio, reported on April 19.

Golfers at the Prison View Golf Course near the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., in a photo released by the Golf Channel.
/ AP
Golfers at the Prison View Golf Course near the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., in a photo released by the Golf Channel.

The inmates at the Colorado State Penitentiary created an innovative nine-hole course in a pasture in the late 1960s. On the Fourth of July they held a tournament called the Medium Security Open. The course was actually a small piece of land, surrounded by a fence. "Each par four hole is plotted on a different angle over the same small tract," the Uniontown, Pa., Morning Herald reported in 1974. The warden said the course provided prisoners with an escape from daily drudgery, just like any golfing facility, "except that there's no bar at the end of the course." Actually, there were a lot of bars.

And around 2000, the Louisiana State Penitentiary Employee Recreation Committee pooled resources to the nine-hole, public Prison View Golf Course in Angola. The first tee, according to promo material, offers "a spectacular view of Louisiana's only maximum security prison."

Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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