Putting at Windmills

Lifestyles of the rich and famous (of miniature golf)

To keep the designs fresh, Price constantly tinkered with the themes. During the 1960s, Westwood Acres was transformed into the Hono Lea, a Hawaiian-themed course. After that, all three of the courses were called Green Gables, an effort to cash in on the name recognition of the chain's most popular course.

"Green Gables was always the best," Price says. "Right up until the end, that was always the best location."

Price's string of good luck came to an end in the late '60s, when he agreed to build a course and arcade in the ill-fated Legend City, a sprawling Western theme park that stood near Phoenix Zoo. It went bankrupt in the late '70s.

Toward the end, Price took the helm in an effort to save the moribund park, which was the victim, he says, of too much ambition and not enough capital. "They tried to build a $5 million park with about $4 million," he says.

Eventually, Price was forced out by Legend City's board of directors, who tried to run the park themselves for two more years before closing it for good.

"I lost everything I had in there," Price says with a sigh.
In 1979, he watched as Metrocenter rose in the empty desert to the west. It was followed in 1981 by Golf 'n' Stuff (now Castles 'n' Coasters), one of the new breed of larger family fun parks. Price realized two of his courses, Green Gables north and west, couldn't compete with the slick newcomer.

His California courses were also under siege. After almost 30 years, Reed Price knew the times had finally caught up with him.

In 1980, after more than 30 years in the miniature-golf bag, Price closed the wrought-iron gate at the original Green Gables for the last time, a decision which miffed parents who wondered where they'd take their kids.

"I said, 'Take 'em to Metrocenter,'" he says.
Today, Price divides his time between a summer home in San Clemente and the comfortable house he shares with his wife, Marjorie, in east Mesa.

On the wall of his garage, Price has hung a few mementos from the old courses: battered fairway markers, a worn putter from Green Gables which, according to an inscription beneath it, saw more than 4,000 games of golf.

Nothing else remains of the courses where thousands of Phoenix kids spent hours of their youth fighting for par. The corner where the Green Gables Golf Course once stood is now buried beneath an office tower, Bob Gosnell's sturdy stone building serving as its entry.

Price is philosophical about the courses' passing.
"It was just business. Besides, when we got that offer to sell Green Gables," he says, chuckling, "let's just say that helped take some of the sting out of it."

Price wasn't the only mini-golf mogul who couldn't compete with the theme-park movement. Another of the casualties was Putt-Putt Golf, which had three locations in the Valley, including one that stood almost directly across Interstate 17 from Metrocenter.

There is a tendency among the uninitiated to view Putt-Putt Golf and miniature golf as one and the same. A little clarification is called for.

Putt-Putt Golf is a trademarked brand of miniature golf established in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1955. It uses standardized, high-quality building materials and patented hole designs, making it more akin to billiards than to miniature golf. Mark Ross, tournament director for Putt-Putt, explains:

"On every Putt-Putt hole, there is a way to ace it, and that's the difference. In other miniature-golf courses, the trick is to try to get it through that little hole, or to just miss the windmill, or to miss the elephant's foot. That's not competitive."

There are 336 Putt-Putt franchises in the United States and 44 more in foreign countries. Most of the U.S. franchises are concentrated in the Carolinas, Texas and Ohio. Ross says Ohio in particular was once a hotbed of professional putting.

"All of the great championships of the '70s and '80s were in Ohio," Ross explains.

And it was Ohio where a gawky 14-year-old named Ron Frederick aced his first hole. The year was 1974.

Pool had The Hustler and The Color of Money. More recently, there was Kingpin, an irreverent riff on professional bowling. If Hollywood ever turns its sights on Putt-Putt Golf and the subculture it spawned, the logical setting would be Toledo, Ohio, Frederick's hometown--a place where he and his buddies wiled away weekends perfecting their games.

"Really, most of us were loners, introverts, and Putt-Putt was our only real outlet," Frederick says. "I mean, who else is going to go out there every weekend and put in the time to get that good?"

Ohio was putters' promised land. Courses sprang up like toadstools after a downpour.

"We'd be out there playing almost every week," Frederick remembers. "And there was enough prize money that you could pretty much break even over the course of a year."

But what really got him hooked, he says, was the TV. Putt-Putt owners used to pitch in to sponsor weekly televised tournaments that aired before Cleveland Indians baseball games.

The '70s were the golden age of Putt-Putt. The Professional Putters Association of America had more than 3,000 members, many of whom competed for $50,000 prizes at international tournaments. One year, Putt-Putt even pitched in a Corvette.

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