Keeping Score at the Miniature Golf Course

by Stewart Engesser

I’ve jumped off cliffs in Crete, seen thieves tossed off Chinese trains to almost certain death, and been threatened at gunpoint in New Orleans. I’ve stood face to face with a wild Grizzly, eaten rotten shark, and survived the attack of the dreaded Gomar, a Venezuelan scorpion known for its ability to kill a man in ten minutes. But I have never been forced to grapple more thoroughly with my own mortality than when I recently played 18 holes of Nighttime Adventure Miniature Golf under the lights of Pirate Cove in Old Orchard Beach.

I will confess it: I love playing miniature golf. Miniature golf is human drama writ small: there will be tears, there will be danger and injuries and anger, cheating and blame and betrayal. There will be frustration and pain. There will be thrilling victories and terrible reversals. But there will also be triumph: the small thrill that comes when thel dimpled ball wobbles impossibly toward the tin cup, and PLUNK – falls in.

I grew up playing miniature golf at a relatively sedate placed called Bill Burr’s Flamingo Golf in Surf City, New Jersey. My father and I played every night that it wasn’t raining, and some that were, for all the summers of my childhood. Bill Burr was a high school principal in the off-season, and he had built the course and all the hazards by hand in his off time. The course was classic, tidy, and featured brightly painted plywood and paper mache obstacles that added complexity without overwhelming the senses. No blaring sound effects, no flashing strobes or pounding guitar pop, and no drunken golfers. Just wind mills, raised sections of turf, difficult angles, rotating wheels, paddles, and one lonely gray elephant statue the size of a Labrador retriever. Oddly, there were no flamingos; not even on the sign. Flamingo golf’s sign depicted a cartoon of a wall-eyed gap-toothed manchild in a green knit cap and tweed knickers, waving a broken putter.

As regulars, my father and I were treated differently. Bill knew our names. We got to pick the color of our golf balls. We were allowed to bring our own putters. I was given a lollipop at the BEGINNING of the game, AS WELL AS at the end. Sure, it all sounds hopelessly dorky now. But here’s the thing: my father and I were damn good miniature golfers.  Measured against the hapless efforts of the one-timer tourist players, our skills appeared miraculous, incredible, and deserving of fame. By the time I was fourteen, both my father and I could reliably play the entire course in twenty strokes. My personal best was 19 – that’s on an eighteen hole course. I have the scorecard to prove it.

In school, I was never particularly good at the usual sports – soccer, basketball, baseball. I skied, I biked, I dabbled in genteel lawn sports such as badminton and croquet, but as far as team sports went – not so much. So being this good at miniature golf – a silly game, sure, but a competitive sport with deep roots in the laid-back summertime slacker culture of beach communities everywhere – felt really goddamn good.

Some kids went to football camp, and spent the month of August running around in helmets and pads, beating each other up and getting screamed at by adults with whistles. I spent August days at the beach, attempting to surf, and my nights at Flamingo Golf, shoeless under the lights, coolly blowing the socks off the tourists as they racked up threes, fours, and fives and I sailed through the entire front nine in nine or ten strokes.

Mine has not been a life of great triumphs and conventional success.Perhaps as a result, as I’ve grown older my summers of miniature greatness have begun to stand out in greater and greater relief. So, perhaps not surprisingly, when looking for something to do the other night with a houseful of guests and their small wild children, I suggested a trip to the nearest miniature golf course: Pirate’s Cove in Old Orchard Beach.

As you might imagine, Pirate’s Cove is a pirate themed miniature golf course billed as “Adventure Golf.” I can tell you it lives up to its name. Just getting there was an adventure. I’d forgotten my glasses and so navigating the maze of one-way Old Orchard streets at dusk was difficult, and I kept running over things in my way: curbs, empty fast food containers, plastic garbage bags, Frisbees, as I peered near-blind and turtle-like at the street signs. Children screamed, adults yelled, and the Ramones’ first album blared from the car speakers. (In a small victory against Miley Cyrus, I have been able to coax my six-year-old daughter into a deep affection for the Ramones, assisted no doubt by the appearance of one of their songs in a Scooby Doo movie she saw recently on cable.)

We finally made it to find Pirate Cove doing a land-office business. Every hole had a line three or four parties deep. It was easy to see why: Pirate Cove is a pretty impressive miniature golf experience. It seems like it was designed by the “imagineers” at Disney. Chests of treasure are scattered about. Waterfalls roar and a wooden pirate ship looms above the course, stranded in a brackish pool atop a false shoal of rocks and concrete. The children soon followed the examples set by the fifteen million or so other wild, sugar-fueled summer kids swarming the course: they began to swing their clubs like bats, run like spooked horses after their merrily bouncing golf balls, and alternately scream in joy and weep in terror, depending on a host of complex emotions I was unable to keep up with. To my horror, it was immediately decided to abandon even the idea of keeping score. “What?” I stammered. “How can you not keep score?”

“It’s only miniature golf,” my wife said. “What’s the big deal?”

Have you ever had a moment when you felt like walking away from everything, and starting fresh somewhere else? I had one of those moments at Pirate’s Cove. Here it was, my complex and stressful life as an adult laid out before me. Sound effects and music blaring, grown ups sweating  and wild eyed as they traipsed behind their joyful, uncontrollable children, all yelling the same things: stop, wait, careful, no, no, no!

I wanted to go back to Flamingo Golf. I wanted things to be simple, and quiet, and handmade. I wanted to play miniature golf with my father, who, all those summers ago, knowing I was hopeless at sports, gave me the only opportunity at athletic greatness I will likely ever know: a nineteen stroke run at Flamingo Golf.

I wanted to have fun. I wanted to take off my shoes. I wanted to be young and tan and thin. I wanted to keep score.