It is a matter of taste which activity one wants to call "minigolf" rather than "golf", but probably the best candidate as the "first minigolf course in the world" is the Ladies' Putting Club of St. Andrews in Scotland, which was founded in 1867, and still today is operating and open for public. This 18-hole course of putting greens, called "the Himalayas", was founded by some members of the notable Royal & Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews. Women had become interested in golf game, but the conservative social norms of the era deemed it unacceptable for women to publicly perform such violent movements that a golf swing requires. Therefore an 18-hole course of short putting greens was constructed for women – apparently the first "miniature golf course" in the world.
A few decades later it became customary for many American and British hotels to offer their guests a miniature-sized golf course, using the same designs as actual golf courses, but at one tenth the scale. The game was played with a golf putter and a short driver, and was called "garden golf", "pitch and putt golf", "clock golf" or "par 3 golf".
Geometrically-shaped minigolf courses made of fake materials began to emerge during the early 20th century. The earliest documented mention of such a course is in the 8 June 1912 edition of The Illustrated London News, which introduces a minigolf course called Gofstacle.
The first standardized minigolf courses to enter commercial mass-production were the Thistle Dhu ("This'll Do") course 1916 in Pinehurst, North Carolina, and the 1927 Tom Thumb patent of Garnet Carter from Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. Thomas McCulloch Fairbairn, a golf fanatic, revolutionized the game in 1922 with his formulation of a suitable artificial green—a mixture of cottonseed hulls, sand, oil, and dye. With this discovery, miniature golf became accessible everywhere; by the late 1920s there were over 150 rooftop courses in New York City alone, and tens of thousands across the United States. This American minigolf boom of early 20th century came to an end during the economic depression in the late 1930s. Nearly all minigolf courses in the United States were closed and demolished before the end of 1930s.
One of the first documented minigolf courses in mainland Europe was built in 1926 by Fr. Schröder in Hamburg, Germany. Mr. Schröder had been inspired by his visit to the United States, where he had seen minigolf courses spreading across the country.
In 1930 the gentlemen Edwin O. Norrman and Eskil Norman returned to Sweden from the United States, where they had stayed for several years and witnessed the golden days of the American minigolf boom. In 1931 they founded a company "Norman och Norrmans Miniatyrgolf", and began manufacturing standardized minigolf courses for the Swedish market. During the following years they spread this new leisure activity across Sweden, by installing minigolf courses in public parks and other suitable locations.
Swedish minigolf courses typically had a rectangular wooden frame surrounding the playing area made of tennis field sand (while the American manufacturers used newly-developed and patented felt as the surface of their minigolf courses). Felt did not become popular as a surface material in Sweden until in the mid-1960s – but since then it has become practically the only surface material used in Scandinavia and Britain, due to its favourable playing qualities in wet weather. (Minigolf courses with a felt surface can be played also in rainy weather, because water is absorbed through the felt into the ground. The other commonly used surface materials, beton and eternite, cannot be used in rainy weather, because the rainwater collects into large pools on them, stopping the ball from rolling.)
The Swedish Minigolf Federation (Svenska Bangolfförbundet) was founded in 1937, being the oldest minigolf sport organization in the world. National Swedish championships in minigolf have been played yearly since 1939. In other countries minigolf sport federations were not founded until the late 1950s, due to the post-war economical depression (from which Sweden was largely spared due to its successful neutral non-militant policy during the World Wars).
|Expansion of competition|
Nearly all European countries have an official national federation for promoting minigolf as a competition sport. The bi-annual European Championships attract competitors from more than twenty European countries. Outside Europe the only countries that have participated in international minigolf competitions are USA, Russia, Ukraine, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. A national minigolf federation exists also in Moldova, Mexico, India, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand, but none of these countries have ever participated in international competitions, and probably are not arranging many domestic competitions either.
World Minigolfsport Federation represents some 40,000 registered competition players from 37 countries. The national minigolf federation of Germany has 11,000 members with a competing license, and the Swedish federation has 8,000 registered competition players. Other strong minigolf countries include Austria and Switzerland, each having a few thousand licensed competition players. Also Italy, Czech Republic and Netherlands have traditionally been able to send a strong team to international championships, even if they cannot count their licensed players in thousands.
The sceptre of competitive minigolf rests quite firmly in mainland Europe: no player from other countries (such as UK, USA, Japan et cetera) has ever reached even the top 50 in World Championships (in men's category). Nearly all national federations outside Europe were founded only quite recently (within the last 10 years), and it will take time before the players of these countries learn all secrets of the game. USA has a longer history of minigolf competitions, but the standardized European competition courses are practically unknown in USA, and therefore the American players have been unable to learn the secrets of European minigolf. On the traditional American courses the best American players are able to challenge the European top players into a tough and exciting competition.
The British Minigolf Association (BMGA) has an additional – and quite surprising – problem on their way to greater success in competitive minigolf. While the minigolf federations in mainland Europe receive annual funding from the government, in Britain the national sports organisation Sports England has refused to accept BMGA as its member – which means that BMGA is left without the public funding that other forms of sports enjoy. The rules of Sports England declare that only one variant of each sport can be accepted as member – and minigolf is interpreted as a variant of golf.
No person is known to be earning his living by competing in minigolf (although David "Doc" O'Connor has come close. His temper has reduced his earning capacity), so "professional" minigolf players do not exist in the full meaning of the concept. Many course owners and employees naturally earn their living by working at minigolf courses, and some of the best minigolf players earn their living from minigolf-related work, such as giving putting lessons to golf players.
The highest money prizes are paid in USA, where the winner of a major competition may earn up to 5,000 US dollars. In mainland Europe the money prizes are generally quite low, and in many cases honour is the only thing at stake in the competition. International championships usually award no money prizes at all.
In the US there are two organizations offering national tournaments: the Professional Putters Association and the US Pro Mini-Golf Association (USPMGA). The latter of these represents USA in the World Minigolfsport Federation, having been an active member since 1995. USPMGA President Robert Detwiler is also the WMF representative for North and South America.
All competitions approved by World Minigolfsport Federation are played on standardized courses, whose design has been checked to be suitable for competitive play. The WMF currently approves four different course types:
- Beton (abbreviated B, sometimes called "Bongni", "Minigolf" or "Abteilung 1")
Eternite (abbreviated E (in Sweden EB), sometimes called "Europabana", "Miniaturgolf" or "Abteilung 2")
Felt (abbreviated F or SFR, sometimes called "Swedish felt runs")
Minigolf Open System (abbreviated "O", "OS" or "MOS"). The latter non-standardized playing system, MOS, covers all minigolf courses that the three standardized systems (B, E, F) do not cover.
The world record on one round of minigolf is 18 strokes on 18 holes. More than a thousand players have officially achieved this score on eternite. On other playing systems a perfect round of 18 hole-in-ones is extremely rare, and has never been scored in an official national or international tournament. Unofficial 18-rounds on beton and felt courses have been reported in Sweden.
In addition to classical outdoor miniature golf, indoor "glow in the dark" miniature golf has achieved some popularity, especially in colder climates like Canada and Finland. It can be played throughout the year, and climate control allows building elaborate obstacles that would not withstand inclement weather. There are also a variety of portable miniature golf fairways or 'tracks'. that can be set up as temporary courses indoors or outdoors. The fairways are usually constructed of wooden or fibre-glass frames. Portable fairways are often used for summer festivals and fairs, corporate events, team-building events and product launches.
World Minigolfsport Federation (WMF), a member of AGFIS, organises World Championships bi-annually (on odd-numbered years), while the continental championships in Europe and Asia are organized on even-numbered years. Many of these competitions are arranged for three age groups: juniors (under 20 years), adults (no age limit), and seniors (over 45 years). Men and women compete separately in their own categories, except in some team competitions and pair competitions. The difference in the playing skills of men and women is very small on top level, however: it is not unheard-of that the best player in a major international tournament is female. Typically the winner in women's category would be very close to medals also in men's category.
World and European Championships have so far never been arranged on MOS courses (which are popular in USA and UK, and were approved by WMF for competition use only a few years ago). International competitions are typically arranged on two courses of 18 holes, of which one course is eternite, and the other course is usually beton, less commonly felt. In the future the WMF is expected to use also MOS courses in international championships – which will give American and British players a chance to show their skills on their own traditional course types.
The most prestigious MOS minigolf competitions in the world are US Masters, US Open, British Open, Irish Open, and World Crazy Golf Championships.