Miniature golf was first patented by Garnet Carter (1883-1954) in 1931. Carter owned a hotel called the Fairyland Inn on Lookout Mountain (Georgia) near Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The construction of the 18-hole golf course for the hotel was moving along slowly, so Carter asked the builder to create a miniature golf course for the guests so they would have entertainment until the regular course was fully built. Guests loved it!
Because the miniature golf course was such a hit, Garnet Carter started the Tom Thumb Golf Company. He built miniature courses throughout the south and sold northern building rights to another company. Carter’s wife did most of the design work, and many courses were done in a Fairyland theme.
Early Improvement Needed
With the popularity of the small course, Carter saw that all the foot traffic prevented grass from growing. He looked for a solution and found a fellow in Mexico who made “fake grass” from recycled cottonseed hulls that were processed and painted green. The fellow sold Carter full rights to the product for $65,000. It was a lot of money for the time, but when one considers how many locations Garnet Carter found to use it, it was a bargain.
After a few years, the Depression caused a downturn in growth of new courses, and Carter sold out of the Tom Thumb Company. He used the money to create Rock City, a tourist destination on Lookout Mountain that is still very popular.
Not the First Course
Though Garnet Carter owned the first patent for the game, the first course thought to have been created in the U.S. was in Pinehurst, North Carolina in 1916.
James Barber owned the Barber Steamship Lines that sailed in and out of New York City. Like other wealthy New York businessmen, he owned vacation property elsewhere. As an avid golfer, Barber chose to build in Pinehurst where the weather generally was conducive to many months of golf. The North Carolina estate he built is known as Thistle Dhu (This’ll do).
Perhaps because he assigned his garden design to another golfer, the two decided it would be great fun to build a small golf course within the garden.
The course was never open to the public, but the Barbers frequently entertained guests. Photographs of people playing on the miniature golf course were printed in North Carolina magazines, and the idea spread.
Miniature Golf In New York City
Somewhat surprisingly, Manhattan is among the places that miniature golf took off in its early years (1920s). Courses were built on rooftops and were designed for the post-theater crowd who stopped off for drinks before calling it a night. It was not unusual to see people in tuxedoes and gowns after coming from the opera or a formal dinner.
By the early ‘30s, there were 150 rooftop courses in the city.
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford must have played the game while in New York. They returned to Los Angeles and opened a Tom Thumb golf course in Hollywood. Unfortunately, their business plan back-fired.
The game was so popular that the movie studios felt threatened by this new form of entertainment. Attorneys for the film companies added clauses to contracts with stars stating that they could not be filmed playing miniature golf. It was considered big competition to movie-going.
Wanamaker’s Department store was delighted to sell and promote clothing for the “miniature” game. They carried a new line of Tom Thumb fashions and advertised: “When you’re Lilli-putting on the Miniature Golf Course, Remember your Clothes Technique!”
Miniature Golf Popularity Declines
The Depression affected people’s ability to pay for leisure activities, but miniature golf was a game that could be fashioned in backyards using pipes, wood, and other substances to create obstacles.
However, the popularity of the game died out after the ‘30s, but in the 1950s and ‘60s, it returned as a popular suburban activity for families.
New Twist on the Game
When Scranton, Pennsylvania native Ralph Lomma returned from World War II, he was taken by the amusement parks that offered miniature golf. He and his brother Al formed Lomma Enterprises with big plans for the small game.
In order to expand the sales potential, the Lomma brothers created a pre-fabricated course. A motivated business owner could buy the parts and get his own golf course up and going within a couple of days. Those customers that wanted full-service could hire Lomma Enterprises to set up the whole game.
Lomma also put extra fun in the game. They come up with whimsical features like the giant windmill, the drawbridge, the blinking lighthouse, and the clown’s mouth. These are feature that are still part of courses today.
In The Wall Street Journal, Ralph Lomma noted that they had courses on five continents and in all 50 states as well as a state penitentiary and an aircraft carrier.
Today miniature golf is still popular. The games tend to be part of family entertainment complexes. From elaborate water traps to courses offering glow-in-the-dark challenges, miniature golf still brings in customers.
Historic Golf Course
And where would one find the oldest miniature golf course still standing?
In Sea Breeze, New York (near Rochester). The Whispering Pines Miniature Golf course is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It dates to 1930 and is thought to be the oldest remaining course in the United States.
For other summer pastimes, read about Drive-In Movie Theaters.