When was Mini Golf Invented? A History Lesson
When was mini golf invented? The question seems easy to answer: find the earliest date when someone is known to have played this game. However, the pastime did not emerge fully formed. Indeed, few things in this world do. Early versions were vastly different from what we consider par these days.
A true early history of mini-golf would search for that earliest date, to be sure. Moreover, though, it would demonstrate how that primate's predecessor gradually evolved into the sport we know and love today. We will do our best to tell that story in this in-depth article.
1867: So When was Mini Golf Invented?
As far as people can tell, the story of mini-golf begins in the Himalayas. To be precise, it begins in 19th-century Scotland. Bored women at a social club, waiting for male companions to finish enjoying regular golf, sought a way to pass the time. They commissioned a 9-hole course for themselves, which they named "The Himalayas" for its uneven terrain.
Rigorous enforcement of gender norms held that swinging golf clubs was not proper for young ladies. No problem: their "miniature links" only required putting, which created a game quite different from its inspiration. The St Andrews Ladies Putting Club became an official group, and The Himalayas became the first known mini-golf course in the world. Enthusiasts can still play on The Himalayas today.
1912: In the News
Far from making it less fun, the game's restrictions only increased interest. The small course sizes demanded precise strokes rather than wild swings, and the area's little hills added both challenge and amusement. The Ladies Putting Club grew in popularity. By 1900, membership exceeded 400 women, along with 200 "Gentlemen Associates" who enjoyed this new game.
Though the story of mini golf's spread is a tad murky, rest assured that it grew in popularity. 1912 saw the first recorded mention of the game in a newspaper. The June 8 issue of the Illustrated London News describes "gofstacle" as a game "played like golf croquet." Obstacles were already present: "hoops, rings, a tunnel, a bridge and a box which has to be entered up an incline." The balls were even colorful.
1916: Mini Golf Takes Shape
James Wells Barber — an English shipping magnate living in Pinehurst, North Carolina — loved golf. He loved it so much that when work began on his new private residence, he decided that he wanted his course. He collaborated with fellow enthusiast Edward H. Wiswell to build a more manageably sized fairway for his and his guests' entertainment.
Up until now, mini-golf courses were just miniature versions of golf courses. Thistle Dhu — named after either Barber or Wiswell approvingly remarked "This'll do!" upon viewing the finished estate — introduced many hallmarks of the modern game. The short holes are enclosed by brick. Their layouts allowed for holes-in-one from careful putting. The course even had shrubs and fountains. Thistle Dhu was closed to the public, but magazine reports and photos surely piqued interest.
1922: Fairborn's Green
For a long time, golf was exclusively a game played on grass. Mini golf, still in its imitation phase, was the same. That meant it suffered the same problems in rainy weather. When the rainwater cannot seep into the dirt quickly enough, puddles form and inhibit play. Thomas McCullough Fairborn, fed up with disruptions to his games, took matters into his own hands.
With a mix of cottonseed hulls, oil, sand, and dye, he invented the artificial green in 1922. This surfacing material could absorb rain better than your average fairway, allowing for continuous play even in precipitous conditions. It was also fairly inexpensive to install and maintain. While most golf courses still use good old grass, mini-golf courses quickly adopted Fairborn's invention. Another staple fell into place.
1926: The Tale of Tom Thumb
Our story now takes us to scenic Lookout Mountain, Georgia, where John Garnet and Freida May Carter created a world of wonder called Fairyland. In a woodland area that evoked the old stories, the Carters built a series of attractions and vacation homes themed to nursery rhymes. The most famous and influential of these was a miniature golf course named for a diminutive folkloric figure: Tom Thumb Golf.
This course's creation is a passable answer to "When was mini golf invented" because it was not merely a regular fairway reduced in size. This was a Fairyland course, designed with whimsical touches that more closely resemble the elaborate and setpiece-happy mini golf we know and love. People loved the themed obstacles and statuary, inspiring the Carters to franchise their creation. Tom Thumb Golf sprouted throughout the United States.
1929: Boom and Bust
The late 1920s saw huge strides in the mainstreaming of mini-golf. People opened their courses all over the country, including Tom Thumb Golf franchises, competitors, and more unique and regional establishments. Sadly, most of these businesses would close within the next few years due to the Great Depression. Unprecedented economic catastrophes are not the best time for trends like this to take off.
Even under these rough circumstances, some managed to survive. A few even continue to this day. The oldest surviving course is Allison's Mini Golf in Geneva On The Lake, Ohio, which first opened in 1924. Irondequoit, New York's own Tall Maples Miniature Golf Course, founded in 1930, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It still operates under the name Parkside Whispering Pines.
1938: What About the Windmills?
The history of mini-golf does not end in tragedy. 1938 saw one of the final developments that created the game's identity. Robert and Joseph Taylor began designing their mini-golf courses this year. Unlike past versions, theirs did not consist of simple hills and banks, natural or artificial. The brothers wanted to spice things up and do impossible things with regular golf courses.
This meant integrating the imaginative décor pioneered by the Carters into the obstacles. Castles now stood on the green, their moats serving as water traps. Courses took inspiration from pinball games. And yes, they added the tunnel to the windmill. Mini golf would eventually become an actual sport when organizations cropped up in later decades to standardize the playing fields. We would argue, though, that this is when that evolution became complete.
Into the Future
"When was mini golf invented?" is a seemingly simple question, but you can see that the true answer is complex. It started as a smaller version of golf that focused on putting through small courses. Everything we now consider firmly entwined with mini golf's identity, from artificial greens to imaginative décor, became part of it over time.
We at Tackimac are proud to be part of this history in our small way. You can be part of it as well by getting your own high-qualitymini golf supplies
at our online store.