New Hampshire's Mini Golf Courses
The retro sport thrives in the Granite State
A 27-foot pirate watches over Buc's Lagoon in Hampton Beach
Golf is often called the sport of business. If that’s true, then miniature golf is the sport of monkey business and has been for a century, including right here in New Hampshire where it’s never lost its luster.
“It is something you can enjoy whether you’re 2 years old or 100,” says Dave Cardy, director of operations at Mel’s Funway Park in Litchfield, where the miniature golf course is entering its 25th season and is frequented by about 60,000 devotees of the diminutive sport each year.
Tennessean Garnet Carter created the first mini golf course in the late ’20s. He owned a golf course near Chattanooga, and it’s said that he created the mini golf course so women would have something to do while they waited for their husbands to return from the links.
He also owned the Fairyland Inn on the property, so he naturally chose a fairytale theme for the course, which was populated by fairies, gnomes and other fantastical creatures.
The idea spread like crabgrass, and, by 1930, the US Commerce Department estimated that there were 25,000 putt-putt courses in the country. Now there are about 5,000, with dozens in New Hampshire alone.
Some were built by chains, such as Pirate’s Cove, which calls the game “adventure golf” and has courses in Lincoln, North Conway, Weirs Beach and Winnisquam. Their courses are noted for waterfalls and water hazards. There are also Glowgolf indoor miniature golf courses at the Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester, Pheasant Run Mall in Nashua and Fox Run Mall in Newington.
The best courses are celebrated for their kitschy charisma, a trend with roots in the Depression era. At that time, to cut costs, people began using everyday found objects like old tires, pipes and barrels as course obstacles.
The 27-foot-tall pirate that oversees mini-golf and ice cream purveyor Buc’s Lagoon on the waterfront at Hampton Beach is as funky as it gets. Buc’s is draped with fishnets and floats, and is under the constant cyclopean gaze of the eye-patched, cutlass-wielding buccaneer whose wooden leg is an obstacle at the 18th hole. Several years ago, Buc made Parade Magazine’s list of 50 top roadside attractions, right up there with the world’s largest baked potato. The mammoth moose sculpture at Humdingers Mini Golf in Keene is equally iconic in the Monadnock Region.
The course at Mel’s Funway Park was built by Dave Melhorn in 1991 on a granite promontory with a covered bridge, a lighthouse and a water hazard that used to be a canal for bumper boats. It overlooks batting cages and a replica of Fenway Park’s “Green Monster.”
One of the state’s most enduring courses is the Funspot Famous Landmark course in Laconia. Bob and John Lawton originally operated a small course at the Weirs Sports Center above Tarlson’s Arcade at Weirs Beach. In 1964, they bought 21 acres of hilltop land that became Funspot, and built a mini golf course with a New Hampshire theme, including miniature versions of the M/V Mount Washington, the Mount Washington Cog Railway, Kimball Castle, the Jackson Covered Bridge, and the West Alton and North Conway rail stations.
If you plan to take to the mini greens, keep in mind this wise advice from US miniature golf open champion Matt McCaslin:
“Each course is a new adventure. Know the course. Know where you need to bank a shot and watch your speed.”