Sunday, September 10, 2006

My Kind Of Golf Bag: One Club

There was a time when I took my putting seriously, even if I was doing it with a red ball and through a windmill.

Something tells me that miniature golf courses are going the way that drive-in movie theatres went in the 1980’s. Namely, there ain’t too many left.

For sure, my favorite course, on Middlebelt Road just north of Plymouth Road, is so long gone there’s probably nary a stubby pencil left anywhere on the premises. I once hit a GM sign there – and it wasn’t part of the course. More on that later.

Gerbs, Lank, and I would ride our bikes – a good 20 minute jaunt – to the Putt-Putt on Middlebelt and play so much in the summertime that I’m surprised the bottoms of our sneakers didn’t turn Felt Green. I used so many tiny pencils that I could have rebuilt a Redwood.

First, so you know, there were miniature golf courses, and there were Putt-Putt golf courses. Big difference. No, really. Putt-Putt© courses were conspicuous by their garish orange motif. I mean it, there was orange everywhere: the rails were orange; the wooden boards that bordered each hole were orange, the small shack where you rented your stuff was orange. Even the stubby pencil – with its 1/250th inch long nob of lead – was orange. I can’t imagine that place around Halloween.

But, ahh, that game! It wrapped itself around us like a serpent for a couple, three summers in the late-1970s. Faster and faster we’d ride as we crossed Plymouth, eagerly anticipating “teeing” the colored balls on the rubber mat for strategic whacks with the only club you needed, the no-frills putter.

A word about teeing off: it was all about angles, my friend. For each mat had three or four tiny indentations on it, left to right, for ball placement. Depending on the hole’s layout, you wouldn’t necessarily place the ball square in the middle. Since I’m convinced that mini-golf holes were all designed by Salvador Dali, sometimes the best bet was to balance your aptly colored ball way left, or way right, at the rubber mat/tee.

But one of the best parts of mini-golf played at the orangey Putt-Putt was what happened after you played – specifically when the last ball was sunk into the funhouse of golf holes at Hole #18.
Putt-Putt used to offer all sorts of coupons and gimmicks to keep you coming back. Perhaps the most fun was the Match-a-Color game.

You know how some restaurants still have those very retro banks of numbers in the corner where the ceiling meets the wall, once used to signify which waitress’ order was ready? If you don’t, humor me anyway. In Match-a-Color, you kept your eye on the bank of colored lights hanging from the roof of the (orange) cashier’s shack. The colors corresponded with the colors of golf balls used: blue, red, yellow, and green. If you got a hole-in-one, and your ball’s color matched the color flashing at the time, you won a free game. Pretty heady stuff.

Naturally, this spawned some cheating and some running.

See, just because you got the ace, it didn’t mean you had your free game in the golf bag. There was still the matter of rushing to show the ball to the cashier. The Middlebelt Putt-Putt had three different courses, which meant there were lots of people, small ponds, and doghouses to dodge – especially if you were near the outer perimeter of the property. It was not uncommon to reach the shack, out of breath – just as the flashing color changed. Sorry, Charlie.

Sure, you could try to cheat – try to claim an ace when you really didn’t get one, just to show a matching color ball for a free game. But, two things about that notion: a) the flashing colors didn’t change all that often – except when you didn’t want them to – so you might play an entire game without the “flasher” changing to your ball’s color; and b) the clerks and cashiers seemed to have eyes all over the course. And they weren’t above calling you out as mini-golf’s version of Barry Bonds, either. If they sensed – strongly – that you were bluffing about your hole-in-one, back you went, minus coupon.

Another rich item was the three-foot tall post at every hole with a convenient metal plate affixed to the top. This was for scorecard placement while you penciled in everyone’s, well, score. And there was one at every hole.

Putt-Putt kept the fun going right thru the final hole, too.

Each course’s 18th hole involved tiered landscaping. Meaning, you sank the ball in the upper level, and it would drop down onto the lower level, from one of three tubes. Somehow, it was randomized. HOWEVER, if you were a lucky putter, an orange (natch) ball would pop out onto the lower level. An orange ball also meant a free game. I still don’t know how your ball would go in and not come out, but that’s part of the magic, I suppose. But the fun STILL didn’t end there. The final cup in each 18th hole’s layout was the only one from which you couldn’t reach in and retrieve your ball. Once you sank it, it was gone – to the world of wherever colored golf balls go when they’re sunk for good. This meant that if you were fortunate enough to snag an orange ball, you’d best not accidentally sink it in the 18th green’s cup without placing your hand there to save it. Believe me – many an orange ball (and coupons) were lost through carelessness.

Oh, and that GM sign? There was a GM plant adjacent to the Middlebelt Putt-Putt, and one of its signs loomed above the course like a water tower. After dozens of visits, we found out you could smack the ball real hard from a certain hole’s tee and it would skip off the barriers and high into the air. The GM sign was a target on occasion. I remember hitting it once. No, I didn’t win a free game. Just lifelong memories.

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