Goofy Golf

Monkey and Sphinx golf hazards.Holes 14 and 15. Generations of sunburned children have posed for snapshots in the monkey's hand.

Field review by the editors.

Panama City Beach, Florida

In the beginning, miniature golf was miniature. So-called "Tom Thumb" courses from the 1920s and '30s were little more than greens with maybe a gnome or a tiny windmill as an obstacle. It was a great invention, but by today's standards it was dull.

Weird alien cyclops golf hole.Weird alien cyclops golf hole.

Then along came Lee Koplin. Lee began building dinosaurs and other odd creatures in the late 1940s, at his older brother's Pee Wee Golf in California. By the time the late 1950s arrived, Lee was ready to take miniature golf and blow it up to Hollywood blockbuster size. He built his masterpiece, Goofy Golf, in Florida; it opened in the summer of 1959. It was miniature golf, but it was also a crazy visionary art theme park.

Lee advertised Goofy Golf as "A World of Magic." It definitely looks otherworldly, showcasing a menagerie of wildly painted, thematically discombobulated giant figures built to grab attention from passing cars. There are ancient monuments and space age icons, with a few monsters and aliens tossed in. You can crawl inside a Chinese dragon or stick your arm out the nose of a Easter Island Tiki head. All of Goofy Golf's biggest characters have colored light bulbs for eyes, and they glow at night.

Goofy Golf Dragon.Traveling from Egypt to China requires only a few putts at Goofy Golf.

Goofy Golf was the first sports attraction that was fun to look at even if nobody was playing the sport.

Lee was also ahead of his time when it came to actually knocking a ball around a miniature golf course. Unlike his earlier creations, most of Lee's Goofy Golf artwork is interactive, challenging players to putt through or around or into them. The two 18-hole courses were built with mechanized hazards: a snapping alligator, a monkey with a ball-swatting tail, a dinosaur using another monkey as a yo-yo. Golfers have to hike through a subterranean black light cave between holes 7 and 8, skewing their vision with hot pink and green UV stalactites.

1959 rocket and church.You need faith to make par at the Goofy Golf church. The GG1959 rocket proudly announces its age.

In its early years, Goofy Golf's massive Sphinx and Tiki head were the tallest things around in Panama City Beach (You can see their skyscraper dominance in vintage Goofy Golf post cards that are still sold at its front desk). Now swimwear and T-shirt outlets vie for attention on either side, and towering condos recede to the horizon up and down the beachfront strip. But Lee was smart; he built Goofy Golf on a patch of land directly opposite Panama City Beach's public pier, so his visitors would always have a view of the water.

Lee's sculptures are so eye-catching that most people don't notice the full-size house behind the brontosaurus. That's where Lee lived with his family (which still owns Goofy Golf) until he died in 1988.

In the turbulent ecosystem of beachfront amusements, Goofy Golf has made a quiet virtue of stability. The attraction has remained nearly unchanged since 1959 except for periodic repaintings of its concrete behemoths in new combinations of garish colors and designs. Killer storms and Spring Break morons have thrown their worst at Goofy Golf; it has survived with few visible scars.

Lee Koplin's outsider art vision of miniature golf has mostly failed to survive elsewhere, but his idea that miniature golf need not be miniature has thrived. The next time you play mini-golf inside a volcano or a Mayan pyramid, thank Goofy Golf. It's still a great miniature golf course, and a mind-expanding alternative to those prefab, franchised, absolutely interchangeable courses with Ty-D-Bol blue waterfalls.