The next time you’re trying to impress a date with your mini-golf skills at Sir Goony’s Fun Zone, you can also drop this tidbit of information: the origins of mini-golf started right here in Chattanooga.
Garnet Carter, one of the founders of Rock City on Lookout Mountain, was the first to patent what he called “Tom Thumb Golf” in the late 1920s. The game was described as a “whimsical version of golf” on a much smaller scale. Along with his wife, Frieda Carter, the couple is most-known for converting the 700-acre mountain property into what would eventually become Rock City Gardens – “a rock garden to end all rock gardens.”
But the little greens turned into big green 💰for the Carters. And by 1930, the mini-golf craze was in full swing across the nation.
A Smithsonian article on the Carters suggests that Carter may have invented mini-golf as a way to keep his inn guests entertained while another larger golf course was being constructed. Other stories suggest the game was, instead, created to entertain the children of his guests. Regardless, the popularity of the concept led him to help “develop thousands of courses elsewhere,” according to a profile of Carter on Chattanoogan.com.
Who was Tom Thumb?
Like everything at Rock City and Fairyland, the character of Tom Thumb comes to us from folklore. In particular, Tom Thumb — who was said to be “no bigger than his father’s thumb” — is England’s first recorded fairy tale, dating back to about 1621. His size made him the perfect protagonist for stories involving his being swallowed by myriad things — cows, fish, giants — and, in one variation, being accidentally baked in a pie. Most likely, Carter used the Tom Thumb character because of the already established fairy tale theme.
Mini-golf vs. Tom Thumb Golf
The origins of miniaturized golf course date back to the late 1800s and come from the home of golf itself, Scotland. Developers created putting greens designed to enhance a golfer’s short game. These small “putting-only” practice courses became popular attractions on their own. Some of the early mini-golf courses were designed for women, whose participation in golf was considered “unladylike,” according to a USA Today article.
From the article:
“The American origin of miniature golf as we think of it today, however, got its start in 1916. The legendary golf Mecca of Pinehurst, North Carolina saw the opening of the Thistle Dhu (“This’ll do”) course, which was putting only. One enterprising golf fan took notice, and came up with a unique surface comprised of cottonseed hulls, oil, sand and dye. It wasn’t long after that when the top of the New York skyline held well over 100 rooftop putting courses.”
But these courses lacked key ingredients: imagination and whimsy.
Carter’s vision was spurned by the already thriving fairytale gardens at Rock City. Instead of simply putting greens, his idea added obstacles and required a geometric skill that hadn’t previously existed. The Rock City course contained sewer pipes + hollow logs to hit the ball through, and he added fairy tale characters throughout the course (i.e., gnomes) that added to the excitement for the entire family.
He also happened to be the first to franchise the sport, leading the way for similar courses throughout the nation.
By 1930, Midget Golf (as it was called at the time) was America’s “newest craze,” according to an article in Popular Science. In just three years since the Rock City course, the article estimated that more than a million players regularly participated in the sport on more than 25,000 courses. It is believed that 50,000 courses were built in 1930 alone to accommodate the growth.
“The exact reasons for the enormous success of the fad are a mystery to everybody, including the promoters,” the 1930 article states. “It happened to fit in with some odd quirk that somehow existed in the tastes of a great many people at the same time...it offers the average man who has never played golf the feeling that he is playing the game hitherto denied him by cost, inaccessibility, or other causes.”
What happened to Tom Thumb golf?
As Americans struggled through the Great Depression, mini-golf served as an inexpensive respite from the grim news of the day. Chattanooga held the first Tom Thumb Open in 1930 with more than 200 players. However, competitive mini-golf craze all but died out by the 1940s in Chattanooga. The former Tom Thumb golf course was replaced by Frieda Carter’s vision of what would eventually become Rock City Gardens. The popular attraction remains one of the most-visited attractions in the region to this day.
To claim to be the origin city of modern mini-golf, Chattanooga’s current options are few and far between. Yelp.com only lists five mini-golf opportunities within an hour of the city. Sir Goony’s is the closest.
A few hours away, Pigeon Forge is home to at least ten mini-golf courses. But, if you really want to hit the greens, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is considered the mini-golf capital of the world with about 50 courses within a span of 30 miles.