Most miniature golf courses are so sublimely surreal that only Salvador Dalí could run the pro shops. What other sport requires you to whack a ball between the whirling blades of a windmill, then through a papier-mâché sphinx and into the jaws of a giant toad with revolving eyes? Somewhere in the world there must be a course with a melting watch.
Surely no other sport is so unremittingly Grimm. Minigolf was first played in 1926 at a Tennessee resort called Fairyland Inn, where gnomes and elves guarded the holes and the game was known as Tom Thumb Golf. By the end of the Roaring '20s as many as four million Americans were playing every day, and a hit song bore the title I've Gone Goofy over Miniature Golf. Courses were installed on Manhattan rooftops, in hotel ballrooms, on the grounds of a state hospital for the insane. One California woman sued her zoning board for permission to put a course in a graveyard on her land, with tombstones as hazards. There was even a course in Vienna's Prater Gardens—perhaps best known for the Ferris wheel scene in The Third Man. Imagine Orson Welles selling black-market penicillin while putting into a 20-foot Sacher torte.
The game survives into the Nintendo '90s with a retrohipness. Jumbo "miniature golf parks"—with easy, channeled fairways and indented greens—carpet the country. But for the real deal you've got to go to Myrtle Beach, S.C., a drowsy hamlet that bills itself as the miniature golf capital of the world. The town's Grand Strand, an endless strip of T-shirt shops and hermit-crab emporiums, boasts no fewer than two dozen courses—nearly all with obstacles and props that recall the bullyragging absurdism of Monty Python. I have been charged with the task of playing all of them in three days.
In the Pythonian scheme of things, people are either sensible, slightly silly, silly or very silly. Since no sensible person would think of accompanying me, I enlist a slightly silly friend, John Diliberto, and a silly one, Mark Moskowitz. You can guess where that leaves me. Diliberto, the host and producer of Echoes, a nationally syndicated New Age radio show, is bluff and bearded, with trampoline eyebrows. Moskowitz, a political and statistical consultant, lives by the ethic "Perseverance despite pointlessness." Both of them think that Fred Couples is a Bedrock dating service.
1. Inlet Adventure
It's a little after 8 a.m., and the only thing open is the sky: Rain pours down. We tee off at 8:30 and start arguing at 8:32. Moskowitz has calculated how fast we need to play to get through 16 courses by midnight. "Making allowances for driving and eating," he says, "we've got 45 minutes at each one, max."
"Are you kidding?" says Diliberto, the purist. "You can't play faster than the people in front of you."
"We'll play holes out of order," says Moskowitz, the pragmatist.
A more pressing question arises after Moskowitz wins this mountainous, waterfall-filled course by five strokes. Tapping figures into the laptop computer he has brought to track our progress, he asks, "Is this a pirate course?"
"What's the difference?" I say.