THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

(Wendy Maeda / Globe Staff)

Holy Smoke!

Miniature golf has grown monstrously popular in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Email|Print| Text size + By David Filipov
Globe Staff / October 29, 2006

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- The Tyrannosaurus rex lurked threateningly behind a giant electronic fence meant to keep the massive predator at bay and guarantee the safety of the guests. {bull} Ah, the best-laid plans . . . {bull} Suddenly, the creature let loose a ferocious roar, rose up, waved his head, and started tearing down the fence! {bull} He was coming through! {bull} It was enough to make a grown man blow his putt. {bull} The fearsome audio-animatronic reptile and his fellow Jurassic and Cretaceous hulks loomed so big as to make the golf course seem positively miniature. {bull} Ah, another best-laid plan. {bull} This was Jurassic Golf, one of a multitude of mini-golf courses in Myrtle Beach and the 60-mile area of Carolina coastline surrounding it known locally as the Grand Strand. {bull} Now easily reached by a new direct flight out of Logan Airport, Myrtle Beach sees mini-golf as no less enticing to visitors than its full-sized courses, its warm weather that lasts from April to November, and the acres of sandy shoreline that put the beach into Myrtle.

The area has more than sixty 18-hole miniature golf courses, said Brad Dean , president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, who refers to Myrtle Beach as "the miniature golf capital of the world."

Most of the links are of the variety that course designers like to call "adventure golf" or "fantasy golf." This means that the putting takes place among fire-breathing dragons and Viking ships, amid flash-bang cannonade exchanged by pirates and defenders of Caribbean fortresses, and under soaring volcanoes spurting water dyed red to look like lava. It is ersatz adventure, and Myrtle Beach revels in it.

A website hosted by the Chamber of Commerce and a private hotel group, visitmyrtlebeach.com, has a page dedicated to the pastime. North Myrtle Beach is home to the US ProMiniGolf Association, which held its championship here last weekend.

Nestled on a side street leading away from the beach, Jurassic Golf provides the archetypal definition of "adventure golf." Its two carpeted courses meander over a synthetic mountain decorated with falls and streams of water dyed blue. Each hole presents the dual challenge of navigating the various bumps and ridges of the course while trying to concentrate on the putt and not the dinosaurs. Until the T-Rex does his thing, that is.

"When it goes off , we've had some kids running out back here , " chuckled Jim Lewis , who was manning the cash register at Jurassic Golf on a recent balmy afternoon.

But they always come back, lured by the amusement-park qualities and propelled by their parents' need to find something for their young ones to do after the long drive to Myrtle Beach. Most visitors are still road travelers, despite the recent addition of direct flights from the Northeast and the gradual transformation of Myrtle Beach from a regional vacation spot to a national destination, Dean said.

At Captain Hook's Adventure Golf , which includes a talking hologram of Tinker Bell at the fourth hole and the sixth hole is on a floating pirate ship, Doug Miller, his wife , and two young children were playing a round. The Millers had driven from Long Island, N.Y., to Topsail Island, N.C., for a weeklong vacation, and Myrtle Beach was a day trip.

"It's a nice break in between the beach and the two-hour ride back to Topsail Island," Miller said as he lined up a shot at a hole that overlooked the high-rises lining Ocean Boulevard and the choppy blue expanse of water beyond.

"When people have leisure time in a resort area they drive around looking for a place to go," said Bobby Cooke , president of Resort Golf, which operates Treasure Island and Spyglass Adventure Golf , which between them feature pirate themes and activities. "Miniature golf has all the elements. It doesn't discriminate in age."

"Where else can a family spend $30 at the beach?" said Cooke, a pirate buff who installed a nine-hole course in his apartment when he was a college student. He ran a course in Hyannis before coming to Myrtle Beach.

Cooke said the warm weather that allows people to play nine months of the year and large crowds of vacationers -- on an average summer day Myrtle Beach has a half million visitors, Dean said -- have provided course owners the revenue and incentive to invest in expensive special effects.

At Spyglass, cannon s fire across a lake at a floating pirate ship . The course leads past blue-dyed waterfalls and through an artificial cave with stalactites and stalagmites. A pirate's disembodied voice bellows over a loudspeaker, "Red Dog, come back here, ye scurvy bilge rat," and other briny bits of buccaneer-speak.

Pirates are among the more popular themes. Each hole at the Mutiny Bay course features a little plaque that tells the story of a famous pirate. But woe betide the putting pirate enthusiast who becomes too immersed in the lore. At the 13th hole, a pirate ship opens fire on a fort as a voice booms: "Hoist the Jolly Roger!" After a cannon exchange that is no less disturbing to your stroke than the roar of the T-Rex, the fort explodes into fire.

Volcanoes are another popular motif. At Molten Mountain, one course circumnavigates a 50-foot synthetic volcano that periodically erupts, spewing red water. A second course runs under the volcano, where colored lights make water traps appear to be filled with lava. Instead of the ubiquitous green carpets that cover most outdoor mini-golf courses, here the holes are a gaudy red and yellow, and faux pumice litters walkways. Every few minutes, the deep rumble of an eruption interrupts the steady pulse of reggae music. This is the coolest place to play, thanks to central air conditioning.

The smoking volcano at Hawaiian Rumble Miniature Golf is only slightly less daunting, at 40 feet high. Thrice an hour it rumbles, reminding golfers of its presence as they putt their way across immaculately carpeted greens lined with palmettos and hibiscus.

This is the course that hosts the annual US ProMiniGolf Association Masters Championship , and Bob Detwiler, the president of the association and owner of Hawaiian Rumble, is quick to point out that although the golf played here may be miniature (and although the golfers wear plastic leis), it is very serious.

"You have the same sort of problems that a Tiger Woods would have on a regular course," Detwiler said of the sand traps and modulations at Hawaiian Rumble, which Golf magazine recently voted the top miniature course in the United States. "For the Masters, they come in and they study the holes, they will check the angles."

Detwiler chuckles at the notion that adventure golf is any less challenging than the older generation of miniature golf, those courses made of floorboard rather than synthetic turf, and which featured loop-de-loops and jumps and windmills.

"You're going through an adventure and the holes are more like a natural PGA-style green," he said. "Players from all over the world, from all over the United States come here, and any one of them will tell you that our course is the highest degree of difficulty. It's the Augusta of mini-golf courses."

But Detwiler and other miniature golf aficionados are just as quick to play down the competitive nature of miniature golf.

"Some people think of it as a sport, but you can also have a good time," said Tom Merrell, who designed Jurassic, Captain Hook, and several other Myrtle Beach courses. "It's about the only sport out there that anybody can play. It's a thing to do after you eat dinner."

To arrive at one of the courses he designed, Professor Hacker's Lost Treasure Golf, players climb aboard a train that carries them to the top of the artificial mountain from which play begins. As they descend, golfers follow the exploits of a gold- and diamond-hunting archeologist past a tar pit littered with dinosaur bones, and through caves decorated with fossils and prehistoric drawings.

"Myrtle Beach claims to be the miniature golf capital of the world," Merrell said. "Whether or not that's true, we do a good job."

Contact David Filipov at dfilipov@globe.com.

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