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.