Story & Photos by John Grady

New Hampshire Seacoast Sunday,
Sunday, August 23, 1987

For those who are tired of bars, beaches and boob tubes, miniature golf may provide a good expensive alternative.

Sunshine beams down, the greens of the course shine. Club in hand, blue sky overhead, it’s tee-off time on the links. The moment is both relaxing and filled with anticipation. Once the happy foursome ahead has played through, we step up to the tee.

Addressing the ball, balancing my swing, I sight the hole. It’s a difficult one. Timing is crucial. Moving plastic bowling pins are alternately raised and lowered in a staggered pattern. A mistimed shot will send the ball bouncing back at me.

Confidently, I take a stroke. Rolling smoothly down the astro-turf, the ball squeaks under the pin by a centimeter. With just the right momentum – not too slow, not too fast – and the right line, it heads down the green toward the hole. Everyone stops and watches intently.

Plop! It drops in the cup. The satisfying thrill of a hole-in-one washes over me. I accept the happy congratulations of my companions although I can tell they’re slightly envious. Now the competition begins.

Miniature golf is a fantasy game. The feelings and actions mimic full-size golf. You can pretend it’s real. The courses add to the fantasy. Each hole is its own little world. One holes features an imagined trip to Holland with its own moving windmill. At another, an awful-looking witch flies on her broom. For thousands of vacationers, a trip to the Seacoast wouldn’t be complete without a few rounds of mini-golf, also called putt-putt. Three different courses in Hampton Beach have been serving up small-scale golf thrills for decades.

THE NEWEST course, in the Hampton Beach Casino, was one of the oldest but is now completely renovated. The new course will test mini-golfs fundraising power. The first ever Hampton Beach mini-golf tournament, modeled on regular golf tournaments, is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 1 from 6 to 9 p.m. It will raise money for a heart and lung transfer of a Hampton woman, Alta Dubois.

“The Dubois are a super family, they do so much for the town of Hampton,” says Jake Fleming, manager of the Casino. Faced with Alta’s illness, her many friends wanted to do something. “We wanted to do a benefit, something low-key, we didn’t want it stuffy and formal,” says Fleming who organized the event with Cindy Willis. He admits that promoting his new mini-golf course was a consideration, but, he says, “we couldn’t think of a better way.”

The event will be a spoof on a real golf tournament. “We’ll have caddies, prizes for closest to pin and longest drive, the whole thing,” says Fleming. Businesses will sponsor holes, so there will be displays on the course for such places as Galley Hatch or Widow Fletcher’s.

Requested entry donations are $25 per player, $100 for a team. At the end of the competition an awards party will be held at the Whale’s Tale Restaurant and Pub in the Casino.

When Fleming began thinking about redoing the more than 35-year old Casino mini-golf amusement last year he contacted the National Golf Foundation in Jupiter, Fla., which provided a list of more than a dozen mini-golf course designers. He selected Castle Golf Development of Arizona, which has produced very elaborate mini-golf courses, including a 36-hole course in Houston, Texas done up like Disneyland with a huge fantasy castle in the center. That course includes more than $20,000 worth of silk flowers.

The Casino Mini-Golf is the only indoor course in the Seacoast.

Each hole is lit by lamps at shoulder-level covered with colored-glass shades. The short walls that separate each hole add to the privacy of the hole, even though they are laid out side-by-side. A game is $3 for adults and $2 for kids under 12.

“IT TAKES your mind off your problems,” says Fleming as he fingers his putter and plants his feet at the start of hole number one. Taking a couple of practice swings, he finally gives the little orange ball a whack, sending it off down the straight-away. He’s obviously played this game before – the ball plunks directly in the hole.

A devoted golfer who just finished explaining how little the mini-version resembles the real thing, Fleming’s face lights up as he beams about his hole-in-one.

“It’s a challenge, you do get a sense of accomplishment when you make a good shot,” he says.

A friendly wager adds zest to the competition, so we settle on the stakes: the New Hampshire Seacoast Sunday company versus the entire Hampton Beach Casino, including the water slide.

“Fore!” yells an eight-year-old kid teeing off on the hole next to ours. Screams of delight and frustration sound from time to time as we make our way through the course.

Halfway through 18 holes, we are at the centerpiece of the new course, a large, spinning water wheel and a house. Playing around the model house, with its lit windows, involves a common feature of mini-golf – drop holes. The hole you shoot for in these is not the final hole. The ball drops through tubes to another level and, depending on the spin and intensity of your shot, into the final hole.

By the time we’ve reached the end, enjoying the attractive, plant-filled environment along the way, we’ve lost count. Neither of us have kept score. Shooting into the skeeball-like final hole, which offers a free round if you drop it into the bulls-eye, we call the match a draw.

Alicia Preston prepares to tee off through Long John Silver’s legs at Go-Go Putt in Hampton Beach

SOUTH ON Ocean Boulevard, at the corner of “N” Street, is another Hampton Beach mini-golf institution: Go-Go Putt. A 21-foot pirate, Long John Silver, stands straddling the first hole and can be seen from blocks away.

Five years ago owner Judy Preston moved the course from its Ashworth Avenue location, where it had been for 12 years, down to the boulevard. A toy french poodle named Go-Go, who died in 1971, is the course’s mascot and namesake. A statue of Go-Go sits atop the entrance to the course. Today, Preston has a grey french poodle named Otto, giving the fourth hole its name.

The outdoor course, with its astro-turf greens bordered by three-inch high wooden frames, features a collection of whimsical sculpture by Darrell O’Connor.

At hole #7 stands a giant pink elephant called Judy’s Nightmare with sheet metal ears and graceful, chair-leg tusks painted lime green. A green visor sits on top of the elephant’s fuel tank head painted many coats of bright pink. The trunk is an old pipe. In its mouth, a tuft of hay (which is actually a bird’s nest), sticks out.

O’Connor collected the material for his sculptures at dumps, roadsides or wherever he could. Anyone interested was invited to view his work displayed on the grounds of his Kingston home. When O’Connor moved to Massachusetts he offered his work to Preston, who bought it for the mini-golf course.

Quequog, the whale-hunter from Moby Dick, stands at the ninth hole. In a formal black jacket and top hat, he holds a tall, pointed harpoon with a wooden handle. Teeth show through Quequog’s wide smile and an earring dangles from his ear. A parrot with a worm in its mouth perches on his shoulder.

Sticking out of his back is a perplexing crank that makes him look like a giant wind-up toy. A realistic witch flies on a broomstick over hole #15. The finely detailed, fiendish face includes buck teeth set in a square jaw. A red button holds her black cloak on. Pointy black shoes stick out near the end of her broomstick. Golfers must be relieved to putt away from her spells.

Other works on the grounds by O’Connor include a long dachshund dog, a rocketship, the tin man from Wizard of Oz riding a tin mule and a curious yellow sunflower growing out of an old black shoe with a red-eyed worm crawling up it.

Among the twists, turns and obstacles of the Go-Go Putt course are a loop-the-loop, that sends the ball for a 360-degree ride; and a 3-D hole, that sits at the top of an inverted cone shape. The 17th hole splits off into a “Y” shape with separate “His” and “Hers” holes. The final hole offers a “free game shot.” Admission is $1.95.

A popular and unique attraction at Go Go Putt is “Sand Art.” People line up to express themselves by filling stretched and twisted Coke bottles with different colored sand.

“The kids love it,” says Harriet Harris, Preston’s mother who helps operate the family-owned business with her grandchildren, Alicia and Richard Preston. Mixing and pouring the many different colors of sand into the oddly shaped bottles produces some unusual effects.

THE TOM THUMB Mini-Golf course sits at the other end of Hampton Beach, north of the Casino at 375 Ocean Boulevard. The course, which has been serving visitors to the beach for more than 30 years, was recently acquired by Richard Gutierrez and James Fisher. Dan Gelok and Carol Manthey manage the place, which they say fills up in the evenings and on cloudy days.

On the course Phil Cotoni and his son Keith are aiming their balls through the moving plastic bowling pins on hole #2. “He’s beating me,” complained Cotoni of his son’s skill. “He’s already had a hole-in-one.”

Michael McCullouigh, a visitor to Hampton Beach from Marlboro, Conn., times his shot through the moving obstacle at the Tom Thumb course.

One of the attractions of mini-golf is that it’s so simple – although tricky – that everyone can play equally. Old or young, male or female, strong or weak, everyone must carefully tap the little ball just right.

The course is also a popular place for dates. Gelok once opened the course at 8 a.m. for two formally-dressed couples still up from their high school prom. Tom Thumb’s is a classic course, starting with a statue of an old fisherman. Once through the bowling pins, it’s on to a wishing well with bricks, a windmill, a railroad crossing, a wheel of fortune, a covered bridge and an uphill pinball machine style obstacle. For $1.75, golfers also pass through a fountain, a teepee, a castle and a lighthouse. For $1.25, you can get an immediate replay.

The unique part of Tom Thumb’s is in the refreshment stand. It is the only place around that serves Pennsylvania Dutch Funnel Cake. This is not fried dough. The batter is full of eggs and flour and milk and then squirted into the fryer in strings like it was poured through a funnel. The crispy strands come out in a tasty clump covered with powdered sugar and/or cinnamon.

Stepping up to the final hole at any of the Hampton Beach courses adds an extra thrill to the game. Here, in one shot, is an opportunity to win another round free.

At Tom Thumb the hole includes a series of concentric rings with different holes to fall through. One says take two strokes off your final score, another says remove one stroke, the bonus hole offers a free game. You hit and it spins, where it lands, nobody knows.