“Golf is a good walk spoiled.” This quote reflects my own opinion of the game, but luckily there’s another form of golf that fits my family perfectly.
Miniature, or mini, golf claims a heritage beginning in Scotland in the 1800s. Apparently, the stuffy men’s game was considered too risqué to allow the womenfolk to play, so they were as-signed a smaller, but no less beautiful, course, which allowed only putting to prevent the scandalous positioning of the female form should a woman swing the club above her waist.
In 1916, James Barber laid out a private miniature golf course around his summerhouse in North Carolina, which he called Thistle Dhu (meaning black thistle in Scottish). The tiny 18-hole course used concrete swales and sand bunkers as challenges and was fully landscaped with grass, flowers, shrubs, and trees.
Copies began to pop up around the country, and well-to-do folk all over began to while away the hours on putting courses of disparate design. City dwellers got in on the action by constructing courses on top of buildings. New York City boasted 150 rooftop miniature golf courses for a brief time in the 1930s.
The Great Depression, however, almost put an end to the whimsical waste of time and money. Enterprising kids all over the country took construction debris and other junk and created putting courses on abandoned lots using pipes, ramps, stairs, and old tires, much like our local skateboarders of today, who, with no local skate park, make do with found materials.
When the Depression finally came to an end, a man named Garnet Carter was building a theme resort hotel in the mountains of Georgia called Fairyland Inn. Mr. Carter saw the potential of the mini-golf craze and built his own course on the resort, incorporating hollow logs, pipes, and concrete streams, with gnomes, elves, and other woodland creatures decorating the links. The course even featured animal head holes that mooed, crowed, or oinked when the player successfully shot their ball into the mouth.
Mr. Carter trademarked the Tom Thumb mini golf course and sold kits to others who opened their own businesses. Over 250 of them were built in the Los Angeles area alone in one year.
As the 1930s progressed, the game faded almost into obscurity. Some say too many courses were built too fast and the quality of the experience suffered. Still, the public enjoyed the game and the larger, cleaner courses continued to draw families and young couples. After World War II, the car craze drove the next mini golf trend as owners built courses next to highways and advertised them with giant sculptures and colorful billboards.
In the early 1950s, Don Clayton trademarked the Putt Putt Golf moniker and sold franchises all over the nation. The goal of the game is the same, but Putt Putt emphasizes putting skill and there are fewer adornments and no tricky hazards such as windmills, monsters, or pinball effects as in mini golf.
Miniature golf comes to Tahoe
In 1957, two brothers built a miniature golf course in the heart of Kings Beach. Carl and Alvin Boberg used their skills learned from years at sea as merchant mariners to fabricate ramps, mechanical traps, and obstacles to build a family fun park filled with quirky challenges and iconic sculptures that create nostalgic memories even today. The brothers left the existing trees and boulders on the lot and created flowing concrete fairways around them. With blooming flowers and bright colors marking the two 19-hole courses, there is no shortage of confounding challenges and mechanical distractions to keep all ages entertained.
On that opening day in May 1957, Kings Beach Miniature Golf was situated on a small but growing main street with new businesses opening all the time.
Nowadays, the new sidewalks are full, the town is bustling, and visitors flock from around the world to enjoy the Lake Tahoe summer. Playing beside the many initials scrawled into the wet concrete almost 70 years ago brings a warm feeling of nostalgia missing in our touch screen culture.
Current proprietor Chris Mooney, who has owned Kings Beach Miniature Golf since 1998, has retained the feel of a family-friendly boardwalk just a stone’s throw from ice cream, burgers, and all the other needs of a family beach day.
In 1970, Bill Koplin and his wife, Mary, built the Pee Wee Golf center across from the beach in Carnelian Bay for their son, Bill Jr. They later changed the name to Magic Carpet Golf. In 1967, the pair had built their first course together in Konocti Harbor Resort at Clear Lake, the sale of which allowed the purchase of the Carnelian Bay site.
Bill Koplin Sr. had trained as a welder and he used that talent to build his first Pee Wee Golf course in Guerneville in 1948. His brother Lee took over operation of the Guerneville course in 1953. Lee used steel framed concrete to add large, colorful animals and dinosaurs. The brothers went on to separately build several courses, including Magic Carpet sites in South Lake Tahoe, Reno, and Tucson, Arizona, and the Goofy Golf course in Panama City, Florida, many of which are still run by the Koplin family.
Under the ownership of Bill Koplin Jr. the two 19-hole and one 28-hole courses in Carnelian Bay are filled with challenging obstacles and colorful hazards such as the western-themed Boot Hill, assorted animals, and a castle with dragons. There is an arcade as well, including pinball and classic video games.
For decades, these businesses have provided not only fun and entertainment, but they also support local programs and offer first jobs for many local teens. So grab the family and head out for some good-natured competition in the Sierra sun. The memories we make now become our children’s history.