Putting at Windmills

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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.

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Howard Stansfield