The proof is in the putter
By ANDREW McDONNELL
Got an itch for hitting colorful balls into their homes? Scene reviews three local mini-golf courses,
discovering the good, bad and ugly concerning the animal-laden locales.
Standing slightly slumped with shoulders squared, arms locked against evenly spaced hands, eyes gazing intently down, breath bated.
A slow, steady backswing, then push forward to lay a smooth, well-centered kiss to the ball's midriff.
A gentle roll driven by the metal-headed putter's pillow-soft caress.
The new journey commences across a stubbled, green earth. The magnificent dimpled orb thrusts into a triangular block, finds itself repelled, drifts between the outstretched legs of a snarling, brown-haired beast — as magnificent a fiberglass monkey as has ever straddled artificial turf — and then, relentless and undaunted, the ball slides towards his home.
The earth's very womb.
Regardless of the name one uses, the ball rolls delicately toward this beckoning, yawning crater, dances around its waiting lip in one tantalizing spin and then, yes — God yes! — dives serenely into the depths of the cavern.
There is no exhilaration more severe than that which follows a hole-in-one; no satisfaction deeper than that achieved by tapping in for par. No one ever claimed this part of the country is the mecca of excitement and culture, but if there's one thing it does have, it's three miniature golf courses.
Hacker's Golf N Games
A golf course's quality is measured as much by its surroundings and clientele as it is by the quality of its greens. Hacker's Golf N Games is possessed by a certain ... well, a special sort of ... homegrown, folksy quality.
That is to say, it has a slightly rougher edge, bearing a closer resemblance to the Patrick Swayze of "Road House" than the Patrick Swayze of "Ghost."
That is to say, much of the clientele contributes to the hard rock, Jeff Foxworthy family reunion milieu that Hacker's manages to maintain.
If any sociology majors are considering a senior thesis entitled "The evolution of 1980s haircuts and mustaches," they should definitely place Hacker's on the list of research venues. The "hockey head" and "mullet" thrive in open cohabitation alongside all of the missing links in this isolated environment.
For the putting purist, Hacker's offers a wide array of course designs among its 18 holes. It starts off in a fairly standard set of holes placed atop slopes, and then gradually crescendos to a symphony of treacherous deflection-shots that can leave even the most adept golfers tearing at their eyebrows.
Hole No. 9 of Hacker's, in particular, is a source of frustration for many novices. It features an unusual horseshoe-shaped hill that may only be conquered through the proper combination of force and restraint. Love and hate themselves intersect at this hole in a frenzied clot of frustration or bliss, depending on whether the stupid, stupid ball decides it wants to bounce over the course's boundaries into an "unplayable" stream. Stupid ball.
A note to potential Hacker's customers — the management of this establishment emphatically discourages people who are tempted to pick up the golf balls, yell at them and promise horrible, painful demise for that ball and all of that ball's family, extended and immediate, if that ball doesn't clean up its act. People of such temperament should try one of the less prudish establishments.
Mr. and Mrs. Hacker have every right to be proud of their little course. The greens are fairly well-maintained and are bordered by sumptuous red brick. Dotted with the most fashionable pine benches and astonishing shrubbery, Hacker's demonstrates an intense commitment to simplicity, tempered by a devotion to natural structure.
Its centerpiece is an extremely unusual fountain — immense in size and peculiarity. The fountain appears to have been sculpted from a small mountain of dried blood. It forms a monstrosity that rises from a lumpy base to the heights of a small staircase topped with an enormous block of a strange coagulated blood-substance. From the top of this block a steady blanket of water unfolds and pours forth from an opening in its top, serving as the main source for a number of small streams that meander through the course. Do not drink from these.
Putt Putt Golf and Games
Putt Putt is the White Castle of miniature golf — a powerful conglomerate that has spread like spilled paint across the nation. It is the heaviest, sturdiest player in the world of miniature golf with more than 250 facilities, and over one billion games played over the past 40 years.
The location on Main Street in Mishawaka provides an example of the sort of challenge presented by the Putt Putt corporation. Three pristine 18-hole mini-lynxes compose a fairly simplistic course, and there are really two ways to describe it.
The nice, polite way:
It is the Hemingway/Raymond Carver-esque concept behind this course's design that makes it work the way it does. The Putt Putt course says so much more than its physical appearance initially tells most people. It isn't the course's quality that really matters. It's the underlying course suggested by the available course that matters and that makes Putt Putt the special place that it is.
The decorations on the course consist largely of vivid orange barriers and ramps, reminding golfers of the fondness and respect all humanity holds for the orange and all its tangy cousins. The outstanding features, whose outstandingness is highlighted by their rarity, are the unforgettable elephant and giraffe sculptures. They are not functional and do not respond to sharp blows to their ankle bones, but the effect that they add to this course aesthetically is immeasurable.
The straight-forward way:
Despite its magical giraffe and elephant ensemble, this is a fairly crappy place.
Putt Putt faces directly into Main Street's gray existence. It has very little natural vegetation, and for the mini-golfer who likes to jumpstart his or her game with a little bit of danger, its lack of real water hazards is disappointing to say the least.
This is the parking lot of mini-golf courses, and while it is a reasonably clean and at times challenging parking lot, it has all the charm and character of well-smoothed cement. Well-smoothed cement is nice and all, but who really needs it?
State Line Mini Golf
Alongside the churning, blur of State Road 31/933, a treasure lies buried in the recesses of a Dairy Queen parking lot.
State Line Mini-Golf isn't going to try to reach out and grab you. There isn't a flashing sign that blares through the mix of mini-malls and billboards to lure you into its cove. In fact, there isn't a sign for this place at all.
SLMG is comfortable with itself, and it doesn't need to bat its eyelids or come up from behind and grind with you on the dance floor to grab your eye (or any body part for that matter).
SLMG doesn't gaze into your eyes just to see its reflection or consistently turn the conversation to itself. It wants to talk about you; it wants to know you; to really know you outside of what your major is, what sports you play or who your parents are. SLMG wants to know the Putter behind the putter.
This is by far the best miniature-golf course in the greater or lesser Michiana area, and it can be found nestled behind the State Line Dairy Queen (the second DQ on the right side of 31 as you head away from campus and toward Michigan.)
It is the oddest feeling to approach a Dairy Queen counter surrounded by people gnawing at Blizzards and say to the employee working the register, "I would like to play miniature golf." But when these words are spoken, the employee laughs and then disappears — presumably to fetch the Dobermans.
It's as if the Dairy Queen is really just an elaborate front for some illicit mini-golf course. Upon his return, though, the employee bears balls and putters and slides them across a Dairy Queen counter.
The price — a mere $1.75 per game. It just can't be beat!
It's an historic price that demands reminiscing: "Yup, we used to putter about, that's what we called it back then, puttering about, and oh ho! the lemonade was so good back then, and a game was $1.75, and then for a wooden nickel you could get a box of Good N' Plenties the size of a bloated tortoise, and they were different back then cause the pink licorice wasn't introduced until the freer-thinking 1950s."
The course is set right behind the Dairy Queen and is surrounded by a somewhat wooded area. It offers well-kept putting greens bordered by crimson bricks and wood chips, an abundance of cartoonish animal sculptures and a laid-back atmosphere.
The course has a number of genuine trees — big ones, a feature rarely found in today's standard, streamlined courses. It also features a number of very nice stone benches where golfers can rest, chat and eat their Dairy Queen ice cream between holes.
The course design is just challenging enough to remain entertaining. It doesn't cause a whole lot of yawning, and it doesn't induce lengthy bouts of foul sailor words. It's a happy medium.
The second hole is worth $1.75 by itself. It features the shape of the infamous mini-golf gorilla, fierce in visage, prowling his way through the short grass in search of fiberglass bananas and the man who inadvertently slew this gorilla's older brother, Xaba, in a Detroit wine bar when the poor beast was mistaken for a defective electric bull.
There are untold stories in this course. Shadowy pasts boil beneath the surface of this fenced world. The earnest squirrel of hole 15, clutching his thick paws to his chest — he has a secret to bestow upon those who will listen. They need pause only once and place their ears to his glimmering buck teeth. Do so, and a story shall rise through that painted grin to make the ears tingle.
The grinning, green dinosaur of hole 17 — what might his eyes have seen that make them burn black with knowledge? Why, oh why, is that smile so sure?
Reasonably priced, pleasantly arranged and brimming with life's caged mystery, State Line Mini-Golf is surely the best bet for Michiana Putters.
All Scene Stories for Wednesday, September 15, 1999