Holed up in Myrtle Beach, kingdom of miniature golf

Destination South Carolina

August 20, 2006|By JANIS COOKE NEWMAN | JANIS COOKE NEWMAN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. / / The volcano belching steam over my head was making it difficult to concentrate on the 13th hole, as was Don Ho crooning from the loudspeaker tucked into the palm tree.

Trying to keep my grip loose, I tapped my hot-pink ball, sending it caroming off a corner of fake lava rock and away from the hole -- a move that left me six strokes behind my 11-year-old son and 73-year-old father and with zero chance that I would make the list of the Hawaiian Rumble low-score golfers of the day.

At Hawaiian Rumble they take miniature golf seriously -- well, as seriously as you can take any sport you perform while wearing a plastic lei. Such seriousness is to be expected, because Hawaiian Rumble is in Myrtle Beach, self-proclaimed miniature golf capital of the world and site of the ProMiniGolf Masters, Oct. 19 to 22 this year.

Moreover, Hawaiian Rumble's owner, Bob Detwiler, is president of the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association, an organization made up mostly of adults, despite the fact that the sport's version of Tiger Woods is a 10-year-old girl from the Czech Republic.

Miniature golf, that staple of family vacations, was invented as a game for grown-ups. In 1918, a shipping magnate named James Barber had a miniaturized golf course built on his property in Pinehurst, N.C. But it wasn't until 1926 that folks who weren't friends of Barber got a chance to try out the new pastime. That's the year Frieda and Garnet Carter, owners of a Tennessee resort, constructed the first public course, assembling the obstacles out of leftover sewer pipe and decorating the grounds with Frieda's extensive collection of garden gnomes.

The Carters' "Tom Thumb Golf" was such a success that the resort owners franchised the idea and shortly afterward were obliged to open a gnome factory in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Along with flagpole-sitting and dance marathons, miniature golf became a craze of the 1920s. Courses sprang up all over the country, from rural roadsides to rooftops in Manhattan, and by 1930, America boasted as many as 50,000 Lilliputian links. But the Great Depression put a damper on the public's enthusiasm for hitting a brightly colored ball through the blades of a windmill, and within 10 years nearly all of the courses had closed.

It wasn't until the arrival of the baby boom generation - the population responsible for the success of Disneyland and McDonald's - that miniature golf made its comeback, this time as a family affair.

By the end of the 1950s, America's highways were teeming with station wagons filled with restless kids and desperate parents who were only too happy to pull over and spend an hour whacking a little ball.

Redneck Riviera

There's no better place to pursue a passion for the game than Myrtle Beach, the strip of South Carolina oceanfront that locals have dubbed the Redneck Riviera. Myrtle Beach has about 50 miniature golf courses. With competition like that, the designers of these links have to go beyond sewer pipes and garden gnomes. Way beyond.

Which explains why it's impossible to drive the stretch of U.S. 17 that is Myrtle Beach's main artery without passing armadas of sunken pirate ships and herds of spouting elephants.

With only a week in town, we didn't have time to play all 50 (not that my son, Alex, didn't want to try), so we picked the top three as rated by a local newspaper poll. Hawaiian Rumble was among these, coming in third.

Rumble is a far cry from the flat little fake-rock-strewn courses I grew up with. It's hilly, covered with palm trees and hibiscus bushes, and cooled by waterfalls colored Tidy Bowl blue. There's also a killer whale and, of course, the 40-foot volcano.

Having managed to maintain my six-stroke lag, I approached the infamous 16th hole.

In a fit of boldness, Alex offered to take the first shot. Undistracted by the sounds of slack key guitar, which made me wish mightily for a mai tai, he counted to 13 - his good luck mantra - and putted, sending his ball near enough to the hole to be swept into the cup for a 2. My dad, who used his club as a cane between holes, also conquered the notorious 16th in 2.

Now it was my turn. I kept my head down, counted to 13 - just in case - and pulled back my club. But the moment I made contact, flames erupted from the volcano and my ball sailed off the green and into a hibiscus bush. I finished the day 12 strokes behind.

Lords and ladies

The next afternoon, we tested out Dragon's Lair Fantasy Golf, voted No. 1 in the local poll. Dragon's Lair features a replica of a Viking ship and a large fire-breathing dragon.

"Fantasy Golf" means you are encouraged to forget you are standing around in 85-degree heat in a pair of shorts and pretend you are deep in the heart of Olde England during the days of King Arthur.

Near the 13th hole, we were greeted by peals of deranged laughter, the laugh track of an animatronic jester seated on the castle wall, splitting a seam at his own jokes.

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