Putting at Windmills

Lifestyles of the rich and famous (of miniature golf)

Thornton's office, like its occupant, is low-key. There are no scale models of courses, and the fun-park, carnival atmosphere is conspicuously absent.

Thornton is all business.
The only clue to his occupation is on a large sheet of paper tacked beside his desk. From a distance, the light-blue squiggles look like funky hieroglyphics. Closer inspection reveals that the shapes have an order all their own. What look like amoebas swimming in formation turn out to be a palette of 40 computer-plotted plans of golf-course holes--miniature-golf-course holes.

Some of them dogleg sharply. Others squirm like snakes. Still others are symmetrical. And all of them owe their existence to Tod Thornton.

With his beard and deeply tanned face, Thornton, 33, looks like he'd be more at home in the mountains than on a miniature-golf course. As it turns out, he is. Tacked to the bulletin board next to his computer are snapshots of Thornton and some buddies in the mountains of Utah, standing over the carcass of a freshly killed buck.

"Miniature golf's not really something I do in my spare time," he says. "I like real golf, though."

Thornton affects an "aw, shucks" attitude about his work, as if office suites everywhere were crammed with miniature-golf-course designers. With some prodding, though, he acknowledges that his occupation is exceptional.

"If I could pick anything I wanted to do," he says, "I don't know if I could do any better than this.

"I mean, this is a blast."
After studying business in college and working construction to help pay for his education, Thornton went to work with his father, Max, a partner in Castle Golf.

The elder Thornton handled--and still handles--the construction end of the business. After Max's partner, the designer, left the company to start his own, Tod stepped into the breach, even though he had no formal design experience, aside from a few drafting classes.

Today, Tod handles all of Castle Golf's design work, although his father "still makes all the major decisions," Tod says.

In fact, his father is currently working on the project on Nevis. "He's probably on a backhoe," the son says.

Tod estimates he's drawn up "between 20 and 30" courses. Several are in Arizona--in Prescott and Payson, as well as the "Outer Limits" course in Scottsdale.

Castle Golf has designed and built courses in Mississippi, Louisiana and New York. Thornton says the courses' budgets can vary from between $3 million for a basic operation--one with just golf and a video arcade--to about $5 million for parks that include amusements such as go-carts and bumper boats.

Not surprisingly, the miniature-golf development community is limited to a small number of players, and the same names crop up repeatedly.

Max Thornton's firm has spawned at least three spin-off companies that join about a dozen others in the U.S. So far, there's been plenty of work to go around.

"We couldn't handle any more business right now," Tod Thornton says.
Like most designers, Thornton resigns himself to the fact that, if he does his job well, most people will never give his work a second thought. It's only the mistakes that get him noticed.

Tod ticks off the recipe for miniature-golf-design success. It is a short list. At the top is "theming," the collection of set pieces--windmills, storefronts, haunted houses--that lends the course personality.

"Good theming is very important," he says. "Pirates are all pretty cool these days, but I don't know how long they'll last . . ."

Thornton says the most unusual hole he's conceived was the 18th of a course in Baton Rouge that borrowed the Louisiana State University Tiger--the local college's mascot--as its theme.

While the themes may come and go, there is one constant in miniature golf that a designer ignores at his or her own peril: No one ever got rich overestimating the putting ability of the American people.

"A good hole must give the appearance of difficulty," he explains with finality, "but still give people a decent shot for a one- or a two-putt.

"People need that chance.

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