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ON THE BLUE ACRYLIC LINKS : When Those Moats and Anthills Try Your Patience, Keep in Mind That Mini Golf Is Fun

August 27, 1992|RICK VANDERKNYFF

You're on Course Two at Camelot, and you're on a roll.

You've lofted your fluorescent-orange ball cleanly into the clown's mouth on hole 2. Despite the din of the nearby freeway, you get the automatic hole-in-one at hole 4's big pink castle. On hole 7, you tap the ball deftly over the narrow bridge that crosses the water hazard.

You're feeling good. You tip your cap to the imaginary gallery, which is applauding appreciatively.

Then you get to hole 8.

At the end of the straight approach rises the king of the course's "anthills"--a three-foot-high conical mound, with the hole set in a slight depression on top. You gauge the distance, hunch over the ball and send a confident putt rolling down the brilliant blue acrylic carpet.

You watch as the ball climbs to the rim of the hill, falters, and rolls mockingly back to your feet. Keeping your cool, you send a second shot straight as an arrow. It climbs the hill, hits the rim of the hole--and spins out and back down the mound.

And so it goes. You hit the ball too hard; you hit the ball too soft. Beads of sweat appear on your brow as a birthday party of 7-year-olds catches up, and waits restlessly for you to move on. You think you hear snickers. You bogie, double-bogie, triple-bogie. You pick up the ball, mark a "6" on your score card, and slink to hole 9.

*

Miniature golf is, like the full-grown version of the sport, something of a twisted game. Sure, it poses as a wholesome family pursuit, a great place to take the kids. But kids are too busy having fun to realize what adults quickly learn: miniature golf can mess with your mind.

Doors open and close at intervals clearly designed to induce mild panic. There are ramps, angled obstacles, bumps and ridges and loop-the-loops, running water, drawbridges that raise and lower, and all manner of whimsical buildings, from little California missions to the quintessential windmill.

In some ways, the game is more like billiards than golf. Hitting straight is only part of the battle: There are angle shots galore, and holes that require varying degrees of "touch." Anthills are the extreme example of a hole that will punish you equally if you hit it too hard or too soft.

You might tell yourself it's all in fun, but don't say it out loud. Real Americans play to win, or haven't you been listening to the election-year rhetoric? Besides, consistently banking your ball off the front of a bright red scale-model schoolhouse can be a special kind of humiliation, especially in front of the kids or your date.

And as much as you'd like to think that most of the game is blind luck, it is possible to get really good. A search of the Times library dredged up a story on a Los Alamitos man who was a national champion at Putt-Putt, a Midwestern brand of miniature golf without the kitsch. He once scored a 20 on an 18-hole course.

The key to the whole thing is a good basic putting stroke, one you can repeat (see photos, Page 11) with some degree of accuracy. Hitting the ball straight is good; hitting the ball straight and with control of speed is better. The toughest holes in miniature golf are the ones that reward finesse.

Beyond that, just walk each hole before you hit. It can be hard sometimes to tell where you're supposed to hit the ball for best results. Also, many of the holes have bumps and ridges built into the carpet that can be hard to spot from a distance, especially at night.

With moving obstacles (closing doors, drawbridges, etc.) watch for a couple of cycles before shooting and determine the best time to hit. Don't panic, either because of the obstacle or because of the people who might be waiting to putt. Rushing into the shot will actually take you longer, because you'll be taking more shots.

One golfer on a recent night at Fountain Valley displayed the right attitude, as he and his young daughter waited to play: "If I wanted to be in a rush, I'd be on the freeway."

Orange County has four miniature golf centers, with 11 total courses. Camelot Golfland, in Anaheim, is the biggest with five courses; its sister center in Stanton, Southern Hills Golfland, has two courses. Huish Family Fun Center in Fountain Valley and Golf N' Stuff in Anaheim also have two courses each.

No more courses are likely to be built, not with land prices being what they are, but the ones that exist report solid business. Summer nights (and weekends during the school year) still bring out the teens--this is still a dating game, if you were wondering--while family business is up during the days, reports Mark Williams, manager of Fountain Valley's Family Fun Center.

Although the recent heat wave hurt business a bit, "we're still up" in total sales for the year, Williams says. "We're still doing better than ever." Families account for the biggest growth, he says: "Saturday night we still get a lot of teens, but we've really noticed an increase in families."

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