Putting at Windmills
A plaque Ron Frederick keeps stashed away in his Chandler home isn't much to behold. The glue holding its brushed-metal faceplate long ago lost its bond.
But the trophy is one of the few things Frederick, 36, retains from those heady days when he tasted greatness.
In the world of professional miniature golf, you see, Ron Frederick is a god. During the 1980s, his grip on the sport was unshakable, garnering him the prestigious "Putter of the Decade" award from the Professional Putters Association of America and forever enshrining him among the sport's greats.
Frederick's an affable sort most people wouldn't mind having as a neighbor. He works long, irregular shifts as an airline reservation clerk, yet finds time to help his wife, Karen, raise their two children.
With little prodding, Frederick recalls when the serious form of miniature golf, Putt-Putt, was in its zenith. Tournament coffers were flush with TV revenues.
"It was worth your time to play it back then," he remembers wistfully. "But now, all that's changed."
The incongruity between mini-golf's image and the seriousness with which Frederick attacked the game is obvious, even to Frederick.
"I mean, we are talking about Putt-Putt Golf," he says ruefully.
And that's much different from what most people know as miniature golf.
For Arizonans, miniature golf represents little more than a cheesy diversion. Courses dot the landscape like so much pastel gingerbread, beckoning with promises of cheap fun and gaudy implications of exotic places.
But there's more to it than that.
Frederick is but one of a colorful cast of Valley characters whose lives have revolved around miniature golf. Many have made good livings. Some have even gotten rich. Others, like Ron Frederick, earned a lifetime of memories.
Before bigger theme parks began to sprout on the Valley funscape in the '80s, miniature golf was truly miniature. An 18-hole course on a one-acre lot was all it took to lure kids. It was a time when Phoenix businessman Reed Price was a mini-golf visionary.
Price, a spry 74, played his first miniature-golf course in the late 1940s, while vacationing with his young family in Long Beach, California. It was called Shady Acres, and Price says he saw the possibilities immediately.
"We said, 'This is great!'" he says. "It was good, clean, safe fun, and there was nothing like it in Phoenix at the time."
Well, almost nothing. Price has vague recollections of a small course that stood near Central Avenue and Moreland during the '40s.
"But I'm pretty sure it was gone by the time we got into the business," he says.
Price asked the owner of the Long Beach course if he could borrow the plans to Shady Acres, only to learn that there were none. So Price, who had a background in construction, got permission to measure off the course and sketch it out on graph paper.
With plans in hand, all he and his partner, Nephi Allen, needed was a location. They found a chunk of land on the southwest corner of 24th Street and Thomas that was being sold by Bob Gosnell Sr. It was adjacent to Gosnell's elegant, sandstone restaurant that was topped with a green slate roof--the Green Gables.
"Bob [Gosnell Sr.] had started out as a teller in a bank, and he saved his money up, and he bought that land," Price says. "And he said, 'If you can come up with $1,000 down, it's yours.'"
There was just one catch, Price says: Gosnell wanted the operation named the Green Gables Golf Course. The partners agreed, and it was the start of a beautiful friendship.
The course's opening was chronicled in the Sunday, November 18, 1951, Arizona Republic.
"A King Arthur fan driving along 24th Street may well blink his eyes and wonder," the Republic scribe gushed. "If this driver is also a golfer, he may wonder even more."
The medieval theme was extended to the Green Gables Restaurant, whose weekend patrons were greeted by an armor-clad horseman. "I always said that guy was gonna drop dead in the summer," Price says.
Not everyone was certain how miniature golf was supposed to be played. "This one gal came out with her kids, and she just reared back like she was gonna drive that ball to kingdom come," Price says. "Well, she hit her little boy behind the ear, and he just bled like the dickens.
"But fortunately that didn't happen too often."
Price and Allen moved quickly to corner the burgeoning market. The next year, 1952, they built Westwood Acres, a Western-themed 18-hole course, at 24th Avenue and Thomas.
In 1955 came the Country Corner Golf Course, which stood across from Mesa High School at Fourth Street and Broadway. Price and Allen sold the course four years later. "There just weren't enough people out in Mesa back then," Price explains.
In 1960 came Alpine Valley, which the pair ran for 19 years near 27th Avenue and Northern. Price and Allen also built courses in Fresno and Bakersfield, California, during the 1950s. Price, the self-taught design and construction expert, also helped create courses in Denver and Salt Lake City.
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.
But by 1982--the year Frederick won $22,000 at the national tournament--the sport was already in decline.
"The focus of the owners went away from the TV series to their game rooms, batting cages, bumper boats, whatever," Frederick laments. "They realized they generated a lot more revenue with a lot less effort than they did with the courses."
National Putt-Putt tournaments are still televised (in the wee hours) on ESPN, but players today compete for $9,000 prizes, a fraction of the purses of 20 years ago.
Yet Frederick, who moved to the Valley in 1989, still enters them, mostly, he says, to catch up with his friends. With all of the responsibilities of a growing family, though, it's getting harder to make that pilgrimage with each passing year, he says.
Despite that there aren't any Putt-Putt courses in the Valley for him to practice on, he's still a dangerous man with a putter in his hand.
"He's still one of our quality players," says tournament director Mark Ross. "He's always in the Top 10, and I suspect he always will be.
"I just wish we could give him a course to play on."
It was George Brimhall who pulled the Astroturf out from under people like Reed Price specifically, and the booming pro Putt-Putt circuit in general.
Brimhall achieved the latter by introducing a string of massive mini-golf and theme parks in Southern California during the '70s. He achieved the former when he built Golf 'n' Stuff in Phoenix in the early '80s.
Golf 'n' Stuff forever changed the face of miniature golf and things fun-related in the Valley. It was like nothing Phoenix's kids had ever seen. It boasted four 18-hole miniature-golf courses, go-cart tracks, batting cages and a massive double-tiered arcade filled with the latest in video adventures.
For many who came of age in Phoenix during the '80s, the mere sight of the arcade's spires rekindles memories of squandered allowances and glassy-eyed summer days spent before video machines; of nausea induced by hot dogs, soda pop and too many go-cart rides; of sweltering evenings in the batting cages beneath humming fluorescent lights.
In the early '90s, the park got a face-lift and a new name, Castles 'n' Coasters. A roller coaster and bumper-boat pond were added, ensuring that it would continue to entice kids for years to come.
When Brimhall was developing Golf 'n' Stuff, he hired a small army of Valley artisans to help him realize his vision, which included dozens of set pieces ranging from castles to pagodas to Old West storefronts.
Two of those artisans were Dean Dwyer and Larry Kornegay, who had graduated from Arizona State University with degrees in fine arts. They met on the job site at Golf 'n' Stuff and have been partners ever since in Studio Productions, which, among other things, creates set pieces and themes for miniature-golf courses worldwide.
Dwyer, the company's president, is a clean-scrubbed, compact man in his mid-40s. The thin, rangy Kornegay is almost a dead ringer for Henry Fonda.
Both men speak of Brimhall, who would not agree to an interview for this story, in reverential tones.
"He's really the one who revolutionized miniature golf," says Dwyer.
Kornegay says Brimhall's attention to detail is legendary. "He'd be out there with the workers every day, pouring concrete, you name it," he says. "It's in his blood."
Studio Productions employs about 20 full-time artisans and operates its own wood and paint shops that can turn out just about anything their clients demand, from quarter-scale wooden ships that look like they could float to intricately crafted haunted houses and castles.
On the firm's drawing board are plans for a miniature-golf course in South Korea.
Studio Productions' designs for mini-golf courses have garnered it business from other quarters. Several years ago, Kornegay and Dwyer won the contract to develop Christmas decorations for Central Avenue in Phoenix. Their work also graces shopping malls, restaurants and scores of other places that call for a touch of the fantastic year-round.
Theirs is a niche business that Kornegay and Dwyer have staked out well.
"It's funny, really, when you look back and see what all of the people you were in art school with wound up doing," says Dwyer. "It's just strange how things turn out."
"We never planned on any of this happening," adds Kornegay. "I mean, we were just a couple of guys pursuing their talents, and one thing led to another."
The Studio Productions headquarters shares the same complex of stucco buildings on South Farmer Street in Tempe with a company called Castle Golf.
The promixity is not accidental. Castle Golf, which specializes in designing and building miniature-golf courses, often calls upon Kornegay and Dwyer to breathe life into its creations. "We get to do the fun part," Kornegay says.
Inside Castle Golf, the phone at the front desk rings almost continually. There is a hum about the place that hints of deadlines and of money hanging in the balance.
Tod Thornton, Castle Golf's designer, taps a few keys on his computer, and plans for a project he has designed on Nevis, a resort island in the West Indies, begin to materialize on his high-resolution monitor.
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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