Minigolf, miniature golf, putt-putt -- Americans have different names for the popular, pint-sized game James Barber invented in 1917. The shipping magnate is credited with building the first minigolf course, "Thistle Dhu," in Pinehurst, North Carolina. When he was finished, his architect reportedly said, "This'll do" -- hence the name.
The summer pastime caught on nationwide shortly thereafter. The official U.S. Open website estimates that people in the U.S. now play 500 million rounds each year.
Minigolf is only one of three offerings at the Family Fun Center -- visitors can also take swings at a driving range, or in the batting cages -- but the small, 18-hole spread is the seasonal center's crown jewel. Located just off I-289, the course is resplendent with evergreens and fountains, as well as gardens full of real flowers, and a wooden gazebo that looks out on the Green Mountains.
Course attendant Chris Bulger, of Williston, has spent his past two summer vacations passing out putters and mowing the lawn. During the school year, he studies geography at New Mexico State University.
SEVEN DAYS: When I think of miniature golf, I think of going to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where there seems to be a minigolf course on every block. It's such a touristy thing to do. Are the people who come here tourists or locals?
CHRIS BULGER: You see a lot of college students during the school year and quite a few families from Vermont. But there's a surprising amount of tourists ... Some people just like to come and walk around the course. They just like to look at it. Like, some people take pictures --
SD: Wait. You're in the middle of Vermont. There are all these mountains and picturesque views. And they want to take pictures of the minigolf course?
CB: It's always the tourists. We had a person from Japan who asked me if it was OK if he took pictures, because he hadn't seen anything like this before.
SD: Why do you think tourists want to play minigolf in Vermont, where there are so many other things to do?
CB: It's a good point. I'm not sure if it's just that you can be outside in a new environment, but you don't necessarily have to go for a hike. It gives people something in common. I mean, they've played miniature golf before somewhere else. Here, it's nice scenery.
And if you come up from a city, this is unique. There are a lot of mowed fields. We're by the road, but it doesn't really feel like you're by the road.
SD: Your landscaping adds to that effect. For a minigolf course, it's uncharacteristically tasteful. There aren't any windmills, or animatronic gizmos.
CB: A lot of places you go have silly things, but I think this appeals to a wider audience. The owners really spent a lot of time with the water aspect, trying to make nice waterfalls. They've got a cave for a couple holes. It's challenging, but it's not so challenging that people never make a hole in one. Even people who golf are happy with it.
SD: What's the hardest hole?
CB: Number 12's pretty difficult. It's got a couple different pipes that you can choose to go through, and people get confused. If you haven't played here before, you don't know what to expect. With some of the other holes, you can kind of see where you're trying to putt, but with that one, it's kind of a surprise.
SD: Which one should they shoot for?
CB: The first one. The second one is kind of the collect-all, missed the first hole.
SD: What's your favorite part of the course?
CB: Holes 1 and 2. They're not too difficult, and they have nice water features right around them. I like that, especially on a hot day.
SD: But it's not like you can actually go in the water.
CB: You're not in the water, but it's nice to hear the water. People comment on that a lot. They like all the water. It's a psychological thing ... And people play with their clubs in the water. I've seen people just reach in the ponds with their clubs. I understand if they hit their balls in, but sometimes you just see people messing around with the water.
It also helps drown out the noise from the road, the trucks, stuff like that. It's peaceful, I think.
SD: It's kinda brown and foamy, though.
CB: Yeah, we're working on that. We're trying to start up the pumps. We're going to be filtering and vacuuming the ponds. It should get better soon.
SD: Do you ever see people get mad?
CB: Yeah, certain people have a tendency to get mad. They're real competitive, and if they don't win ... I've seen a few people throw their clubs, but not too many.
SD: Do you have any advice about how to play this course?
CB: I'd just say look over each hole. In real golf, they read the greens. I think you need to do the same thing here. Take your time. Look it over. The speeds are a big thing. You need to get a feel for how hard to hit it.
SD: At most minigolf courses, you have at least one hole where you have to choose between aiming for the long skinny corridor that leads straight to the hole -- but where you could easily get stuck -- or the wider round-about way that won't quite get you there, but puts you in a good position for the next shot. Which is the better choice?
CB: I'd go for the little part, because it's a challenge. That's like Hole 14. If you hit the ball across this little bridge, it goes over a stream and into a pipe that drops the ball into or close to the hole. If you miss that bridge, the ball goes into the water.
And people think, if you hit it in the water, that's a bad thing, but this hole is designed so that the ball washes down into a ramp, and comes out on the green. People like that. They get surprised.
I don't think you're bad off either way, but if you make the bridge, you're going to be a little closer.
SD: So where do the balls disappear to after the 18th hole?
CB: People always ask about that. There's a little wooden box next to the hole, with a lock on it. And there's a basket in the bottom. It's right to the side of the hole here, between the hole and the water. People want to look inside all the time. I'll open it up for you. You can see, if I drop the ball in the hole, it shoots out this pipe here.
SD: Hey, that's so cool! I've always wondered about that.
CB: A lot of times it's little kids, but even adults ask where they go. A lot of people think that somehow the balls magically reappear in the right spot inside the building, when in reality, they end up here, and we have to come and get them.
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