My, how miniature golf has grown.
Behold The Greens, a $3.5-million, 27-hole course spread over 2.2 acres just a lob wedge from Valencia Country Club.
This course features no wagon wheels or windmills, no fantasy-land overtones and no florescent-colored artificial putting surfaces framed by concrete curbs.
It does include sand traps, water hazards, out-of-bounds markers and--get this--real grass, carefully manicured Crenshaw bent grass, the same surface used for upscale putting greens.
But then, that's exactly what these are--more or less.
The Greens is among a growing number of so-called "putting courses" popping up across the nation, little links bearing a strong resemblance to full-size courses while maintaining the charm of the game in miniature.
Holes about 100 yards long with names like "Downfall," "Jigsaw" and "Cascades" meander through hilly terrain laced with waterfalls and lush landscape. Golfers are challenged to negotiate drastic breaks while attempting sometimes unrealistically long and winding putts. One hole features a 10-foot cliff leading from "fairway" to flagstick.
Other holes are more traditional, requiring a proper read and long, skillful lag.
"We're not here to replace golf," co-founder and president Jack C. Hopkins said. "We're another aspect. We look at it as entertainment."
Hopkins launched Putting Courses of America, Inc. with an 18-hole facility in Irvine in 1995. The company opened its Valencia course in March 1999 and is considering building another, perhaps in Ventura County, within a few years.
Both courses were designed by noted golf-course architect Ted Robinson.
About 30 putting courses have opened in the United States since the first debuted in 1982 at Desert Highlands Country Club in Arizona. The first putting course is believed to have opened in Scotland in 1867.
The Kapalua Resort on the Hawaiian island of Maui has an 18-hole putting course designed by Hale Irwin, the three-time U.S. Open champion who represents the resort on the Senior PGA Tour.
"I've been golfing for 37 years," Hopkins said. "Half of what I've always enjoyed is the social element of it. We're trying to make this fun."
Aficionados of the game have long considered miniature golf something for kids. Or simply kicks. It's hard to take competition seriously when balls travel through tunnels or into a clown's mouth en route to the hole.
"Miniature golf is kind of quirky," said Duffy Waldorf, PGA Tour member and a resident of Canyon Country. "You don't get a feel for real golf. You can bounce [the ball] off the wall, which isn't real."
Yet, Waldorf has played at The Greens and gives the course high marks.
"I actually thought it was a lot of fun," Waldorf said. "It's a great way to get past the miniature golf thing. It's more of a real golf experience. You have to realize that there will be certain shots that won't help your golf game. But it can help your stroke in that you can be really creative. It's like a test."
Putting courses, more faithful to the game's form, present golfers with a suitable challenge.
Putting-course competitions have steadily increased in recent years. The Greens courses sponsor leagues and stage periodic tournaments.
"Putt For Dough," headquartered in Huntington Beach, organizes competitions at various courses.
Hopkins estimates about half the customers are serious golfers.
"With any putt, it's distance and direction," Hopkins said. "A lot of people step up thinking they're going to get a hole in one. But on a lot of holes, you can't quite get straight through to the green. You have to set yourself up, as in real golf."
The Greens at Valencia features three nine-hole courses, each par 28. Each includes one par-four hole and eight par threes. Distances range from 57 to 123 feet and every hole has at least one quirk built into it.
Green fees are $10 from Monday through Thursday, $13 from Friday through Monday and on holidays. Membership rates are available.
When you're done playing, you can have a drink or eat dinner at the Gimme Sports Grill in the clubhouse.
ON THE GREEN
CHIPS SHOTS ON PAGE 14
LEADERBOARD ON PAGE 15