We be clubbin’

Miniature golf is revived in Chico—minus the windmills

FAMILY FUN Randall Ahlswede had just about run out of ideas of where to take his 9-year-old daughter, Corine, for fun outings when Putters opened in May. “I think I finally found a sport,” Corine tells her dad.

FAMILY FUN Randall Ahlswede had just about run out of ideas of where to take his 9-year-old daughter, Corine, for fun outings when Putters opened in May. “I think I finally found a sport,” Corine tells her dad.

Photo By Tom Angel

It’s a sunny Saturday evening, and Putters is packed, with a few minutes’ wait between some of the holes. From our vantage point on Hole 5, we can see 45 people playing the first nine.

When the course opened in May, bringing miniature golf back to Chico, it brought with it a new family outing, alcohol-free date night and conversation piece.

The kids love it. The grownups turn cut-throat competitive. Teen couples have a great excuse to put their arms around one another if one of them is holding a golf club.

Inside, in the clubhouse (where there’s air hockey, ticket-dispensing games and snacks), you can pick your own ball color (pink and purple are especially popular) from a gumball machine. Children under 4 or so can opt for a primary-colored plastic putter with a huge head and seem to adopt a technique involving “scooting” the balls along in one motion.

It’s proven a perfect excursion for Randall Ahlswede and his 9-year-old daughter, who is excited to have scored a “hole in two.”

“I think this is the only outside thing to do with kids in Chico,” says Ahlswede, who lives in Paradise. “There’s no water park. You can only handle so much Chuck E. Cheese. I’ve been wondering for years why somebody didn’t do something like this.”

It was Mike Seko who decided it was time for Chico to go golfing again. (The last club was swung at the ill-fated Fun World near the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in 1995.)

Seko’s first job was at 25-year-old Cal Skate, which added batting cages 17 years ago. He and Daniel Larson bought the business a couple of years back and added Putters, which added up to an investment of more than $1 million.

The skate-bat-putt trifecta could be the best good, clean fun this side of the North Valley.

But don’t go there expecting windmills, disappearing-ball features, loop-di-loops and freaky clown heads.

For the older folks—say, my age—that makes for an initial disappointment. Those things were campy, darn it!

Seko put a lot of thought into what type of course to bring to Chico. “Windmills and dinosaurs work for a touristy area where people come once and they leave,” he says. But if you want repeat customers, the course has to be kid friendly and challenging.

The contractor, New Jersey-based Harris Miniature Golf, also designed the freeway-side course to be amenable to Chico’s baking summers. “We wanted the sound of water and the coolness of the water,” he says. “We chose higher-maintenance bark and plants instead of rocks.”

There’s even a ball washer (no fourth-grade jokes, please) that soaps up your balls (I said none!) at two locations on the course.

CLUBLAND Tom Davies tries out the Putters course for the first time.

Photo By Tom Angel

Also known as Crazy Golf and Goofy Golf, the activity has been traced to 1916, when a North Carolina man named James Barber hired an architect to build a scaled-down version of a regulation golf course on which he could practice his short game. Landscaped private courses, with specially developed fake grass, soon gave way to mini golf for the masses: By 1930 there were at least 25,000 trademarked Tom Thumb courses nationwide. Hollywood types especially made the game a fad. But the Depression stifled interest until in the 1950s the game resurfaced as Putt Putt golf, with all the gimmicky “hazards” I remember from summer road trips.

Now, it’s come full circle: The new courses have gone Honey I Shrunk Pebble Beach.

Harris Mini Golf sponsors a national tournament for charity, and the winner of a Chico tournament this fall will travel to Florida to compete nationally. Yes, competitive miniature golf.

Members of the Professional Miniature Golf Association and other groups travel the globe, competing for charity or purses of many thousands of dollars. They carry specialized clubs with rotating heads and bags full of their own balls.

The US ProMiniGolf Association has a set of tournament rules, including what happens if a ball leaves the playing surface (bring it in-bounds and incur a one-stroke penalty) and how far away from a barrier you can move your ball (the width of the longest side of your scorecard).

The long-term goal of the World Minigolfsport Federation is to have miniature golf played in the Olympics. Already, tournaments are on ESPN and publications are dedicated to mini golf.

My golfing partner and I are, obviously, not there yet.

In our game, my husband clobbers me, scoring 55—he even got a hole in one—while I come in at a pathetic 72. It’s my short game that’s so awful. “You drive for show and you putt for dough,” says my husband.

Throughout our game, we’re playing behind a nice young couple from Chico.

“I never lived anyplace that didn’t have mini golf,” says Janice Davies, in her 20s, who came out to play a round with her husband, Tom.

“We thought we’d check it out,” she says. “I have a feeling I’m going to be in the water.” (If your ball does land it the water, it can be fished out with a net—something the kids really enjoy.)

The “cool” factor reaches its peak on Hole 15. If your ball doesn’t make it over the little bridge, it drops into a creek-like feature and bobs along the rocks before being spit out several yards down the green.

When I used to play miniature golf, the 18th hole would “eat” the ball. At Putters, you get to plop it into a dispenser thing.

The people ahead of us win prizes—a free slice of pizza and a pass to Cal Skate. For us, it says, “Not this time.” Seko says the dispenser coughs up a prize 30 percent of the time.

Seko, who’s pleased attendance at the skate rink and batting cages has gone up since the course opened, admits he’s not that great a golfer—but at least he can make par.

That’s a lot more than I can say.