The Zany History of Mini Golf

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Whether you call it mini golf, putt putt, or a cheap date, miniature golf has been popular since the 19th century.

The oldest mini golf course in existence, according to Guinness World Records, can actually be found in Scotland: The St Andrews Ladies Putting Club was formed in 1867 as a members-only green for women golfers. Of course, the club was a result of the conventions of the day that decreed it improper for a lady to “take the club back past their shoulder.” There may not have been any windmills or loop-the-loop obstacles on this course, but the green was—and remains—one of the most prestigious miniature courses around.

A vintage postcard of the St Andrews golf club.
A vintage postcard of the St Andrews golf club. / Print Collector/GettyImages

All of the early miniature golf courses fell under a few broad categories, including the pitch and putt, the regulation par-3, and the executive. All of them used a short driver along with a putter, and kept the same design of the larger courses: sand traps, hills, ponds, and trees.

In 1916, James Barber designed a miniature golf course in North Carolina called Thistle Dhu. The course was compact and featured a classical design, with fountains, gardens, and geometric walkway patterns. In 1926, a few innovative designers created miniature golf courses on the roof of a New York City skyscraper, and other buildings followed suit; approximately 150 rooftop courses were in existence by the end of the decade in New York City alone.

Adding the Zany

Once the Great Depression hit, regulation miniature golf courses were too expensive for most to afford, so “rinkie-dink” courses sprang up. These courses included obstacles scrounged from whatever was around: tires, rain gutters, barrels, and pipes. Eventually, the wild obstacles became so popular that they became a regular feature in courses all over America.

As for the first miniature golf franchise, you have 1929’s Tom Thumb Golf to thank for that. In the early 1930s, it was estimated that approximately 25 percent of the miniature golf courses in the U.S. were Tom Thumb-patented designs. Building on the popularity of the rinkie-dink courses, the Tom Thumbs featured similar hazards, built by workers in their “fantasy factory.” By the end of the 1930s, some 4 million Americans were playing miniature golf.

The Anti-Zany Movement

In 1953, however, a mini golf revolution occurred. Don Clayton, the founder of Putt Putt Golf and Games, was fed up with the “trick shots” in the Tom Thumb style courses, and became an advocate for miniature golf as a serious sport. He designed a back-to-basics course of only straight putts, with none of the gimmicky hazards players had come to love.

A woman celebrates while playing mini golf
Walter B. McKenzie/Stockbyte via Getty Images

Unfortunately for Clayton, his vision didn’t hold out. In 1955, Al Lomma and Lomma Enterprises, Inc. ushered in a new era of mechanically animated hazards like rotating windmill blades, twisting statues, and moving ramps, and the trend remained for decades.

Toward the end of the 1990s, country-club style miniature golf courses began to make a comeback, thanks in part to the interest of well-known celebrity golfers like Jack Nicklaus. Today, miniature golf competitions are held not only on courses with windmills and castles, but also on miniature replicas of famous greens, with the same sand and water traps courses used back in the early 20th century.

A version of this story ran in 2008; it has been updated for 2023.

This article was written by Ransom Riggs and excerpted from the Mental Floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything.