Putting at Windmills

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"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.

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Howard Stansfield