The 10-foot putt is deceptive. It doesn’t look that far. Ten feet—that’s how high a basketball hoop is off the ground. That’s smaller than the bumper-to-bumper length of a full-size car. Addressing the ball, I felt I had this shot, easy. There was no break, and the hole was only a few inches to the left of my lie. All I had to do was hit it just right—not so hard that it’d hit the cup and bounce out, but hard enough to navigate the corkscrew loop-de-loop obstacle standing between me and the hole.
It had been years since I’d played miniature golf—or whatever you know it by: mini golf, putt putt, etc. Not for lack of interest, merely because it never came up. (I haven’t been 10-pin bowling since the 1980s for the same reason.) With summer approaching, though, I wondered about the mini golf options in the area. I was looking for some kind of outdoorsy activity that, well, didn’t make me mad. Jogging for me is aerobic denial, what I do to convince myself that it’s balancing out what little cigarette smoking I still do. I bike merely to get to nearby stores quicker. I see no need to picnic when there are cafés with air conditioning, tables and chairs, and people who bring me food. I love tennis, but I’m awful at it. And camping? If God wanted us to camp, she wouldn’t have given us boutique hotels that put designer bath products in their cute washrooms.
And then there’s golf. Full disclosure: I hate golf. And I hate it for the simple reason that I’m absolutely horrible at it. I was reminded of this halfway through my second putt-putt round, when I noticed I was so over par I might put up a decent college basketball score. And at that moment I remembered that if I was in the same scenario on a golf course, my younger self would have been barely suppressing anger so volatile that one bad shot would have sent me looking for something or someone to golf-club strike with extreme prejudice.
Now, I know I’m wound pretty tight; always have been, always will be. But outright anger is something I don’t like experiencing, and getting upset over a game is one of the more pointless wastes of human energy. I willingly did this to myself on a regular basis growing up. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I realized that putting a metal wedge on the end of a stick in my hands and telling me to use it to whack a small white ball into a hole some 300 yards away isn’t good for my overall disposition. I don’t know if there’s such as thing as golf rage, but I’m absolutely certain I’m not going to find out if I still have it.
The thing is, I tried to like the game. I had no choice but to try. Playing golf was something that the McCabe men simply did. My father’s father worked in “sales,” meaning by the time my memories of him came online in the 1970s and ’80s, work involved golf. Clubs always seemed to be in his trunk, along with large green bottles of Chablis, which he would pour into a Styrofoam cup with those crescent-shaped ice cubes before heading out to play. White wingtip golf cleats sat on the backseat floorboards behind the driver’s side. My family didn’t have the coin to join a country club, but my grandfather was generous enough to make sure that I took classes and studied for written tests on rules and etiquette and scored well enough to be able to play as a minor without adult supervision. I was never good per se; I’m just a dweeb who showed up if there was testing involved.
You’d think I could apply that annoying apple-polishing habit to the actual game, but it didn’t work that way. Left alone to play, a round of golf became less a relaxing weekend jaunt and more a four-hour exercise in serial failure. Drives routinely hooked off into the rough. I could duff a fairway seven iron with alarming regularity. Water hazards siren-called my name so frequently I could have saved time, money, and sanity just by throwing a sleeve of balls into the trash and writing a double-digit number on the scorecard. I realize what we call golf today dates back to Middle Ages Scotland and early on the Scots drafted a set of civilized, gentlemanly rules, but from my own personal experience the line between getting a myocardial-infarction over missing a two-foot putt and having a guerilla army frustrate you so much that you feel like nuking Afghanistan back to the Stone Age is a very thin one. Maybe that’s just me.
But miniature golf—there’s an outdoor experience I can get behind. Hit the ball between the windmill blades. Bank it off the rail and around the corner. Try to needle it right through a water hazard. You don’t even need to own clubs or any special equipment. Show up, grab a colored ball and a putter, begin. It’s sport for the can’t-be-bothered.
And to be quite honest, writing about mini golf sounded like a great opportunity to be a snarky prick. If golf is, as Mark Twain famously quipped, a good walk spoiled, mini golf is barely a stroll—and it’s really hard to muck that up.
The only thing that stood in the way of me poking fun at mini golf’s mini excellent adventures is that I forgot how much fun it is. No, really. There are few things quite as silly as standing at the “tee box” and putting mental energy into figuring out just how you want to hit the ball at the hole in front of the treasure chest so that it gets spit out on the lower-level green for an easy gimme putt. The mini golf learning curve is almost flat, and it takes no special skill set to at least try to play. Anything that gets you strategizing how you want to roll a colored ball over artificial grass is time well spent.
I found four outdoor courses in the greater Baltimore area, all a modest drive from the city. (I didn’t make it to courses in Laurel or Columbia, or one a gentleman told me about on Route 100 on the way to Gibson Island.) They’re located in wonderfully ordinary neighborhoods, and they all exude a chill vibe. When I think about playing mini golf as a kid, I recall these giganto entertainment complexes right off the highway in Texas where you could play mini golf and ride go-karts and tool around in bumper boats and put on bathing suits and ride water slides and buy overpriced slices of pizza and cups of sugary soda and feed quarters into video games until your eyeballs got three-day-bender red and your hands palsied into twitching stumps.
These four courses have in some cases seen better days, but are nestled in pockets of ordinary, everyday life. The quaint course in Dundalk is located, in fact, right down the Peninsula Highway from a union hall on Merritt Boulevard, a reminder of the working men who live in and built the neighborhood. Kids play with adults, guys with gals, and at some places your round may be scored by the arrhythmic ting of people hitting baseballs in batting cages. It was overcast the first weekend I hit the mini links around the city, but it didn’t take much effort to imagine just how idyllic a round could be on a summer afternoon.
In fact, playing mini golf felt like doing almost anything else around town, only it involved an entertainingly absurd task. The mix of people and ages was akin to strolling around the Inner Harbor. And playing a few rounds reminded me just how much better it is than playing golf golf. And when I say better I mean it doesn’t make my blood pressure spike and incite me to punt small children.
Standing on the mini links and considering how best to negotiate the next hole, I felt wrapped in a therapeutic calm. A trio of young men were finishing their round, joking and laughing and talking about what they were going to do later. Ahead of me some kids were hitting their balls back and forth, not bothering to follow the course layout, much less keep score. They’d descend on a hole, all hit at the same time in different directions, and then run off to an open hole completely out of order. Perhaps regular golf would be more fun with a similarly chaotic approach.
And my loop-de-loop par 3? I didn’t hit it anywhere near hard enough to make the loop the first time, and with the second stroke I overcompensated and sent it bouncing off the rear wall and back to the front side of the obstacle. I totally wimped out and putted around the loop at that point, finally putting up a five. A gloriously giggly five. See you on the back nine.
Be The Ball
ParTee Golf 4123 E. Joppa Road, Nottingham, (410) 254-7888, partee-golf.com
The course: This compact 18-hole course is nestled among retail strips, and it’s a playful, fast layout. It’s refreshingly technical, closer to golf-green putting than a maze of obstacles.
Bonus Round: Probably the easiest to get to from the city, located right near the intersection of Joppa and Bel Air roads almost across the street from a Double T Diner. Discounts offered for parties of 16 or more. And there’s a Starbucks nearby.
Go-kart Track 10907 Pulaski Highway, White Marsh, (410) 335-6393, baltimoregokarts.com
The course: This very tightly laid out nine-hole course isn’t that challenging, but it’s a relatively easy baby step into mini golf. It has a number of the familiar obstacles, and a vaguely Old West theme. The waterfalls hadn’t been turned on when I visited, but I imagine come summer the course’s full waterworks will be in effect.
Bonus round: As its name suggests, the course is snuggled between two go-kart tracks. And while I may be too old for go-karts, the lawn mower roar of a gas-powered engine only slightly speeding a child around a concrete loop remains entertaining as hell. Also: There’s a pit-beef stand in the parking lot (you might wanna skip the grilled chicken sandwich) and just up Pulaski Highway there’s a place to play paintball.
Stansbury Golf and Sport Park 7900 Stansbury Road, Dundalk, (410) 282-6600
The course: This older course is absolutely adorable, with a nautical theme running through its 18 holes and its “fairways” a rainbow assortment of green, red, yellow, and blue. Challenging without being frustrating.
Bonus round: The complex also offers batting cages and a driving range, and getting there is half the fun. It’s not that far away from the eastern side of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and it sits right next to a softball field and community garden. It’s a great spot for feeling far away from the city without having to travel a great distance.
Mitchell’s Golf Complex 301 Mitchell Drive, Reisterstown, (410) 833-7721, mitchellsgolf.com
The course: In my humble estimation, the Valhalla of mini golf in the area. Mitchell’s offers three 18-hole courses: a regular short course that offers the usual, beginner-level challenges of mini golf; the Championship course that includes water hazards and holes that involve chip shots with wedge irons; and the mammoth Monster in the Pines course, a looooong par 70 course that snakes over and down a hillside. The whole complex is located in a verdant pocket of Reisterstown just off 795.
Bonus round: Mitchell’s also offers a lovely nine-hole golf course, carts, and a driving range and putting green.