The Secret History of Urban Putt

For Head Greenskeeper Steve Fox, mini-golf has always been more than just a pastime; it’s an obsession. Thus, when he discovered that an obsolete mortuary in San Francisco’s Mission district had once housed Urban Putt—the world’s first miniature golf course—he was determined to restore this great attraction to its original splendor. He immediately leased the space and began renovations. Fortuitously, in the process of this work, dozens of artifacts were uncovered that enabled historians to piece together both the history of Urban Putt, and the origins of miniature golf itself. In this chronicle of mini-golf’s roots, Fox also made a startling personal discovery: There was a reason for his lifelong fascination with the game. His own great-grandparents had founded Urban Putt a century ago. Miniature golf was his heritage and his soul.

And now, for the first time, here is the saga in which Steve learned who he is and what he was born to do.

San Francisco, 1907. Ferrous and Ada Faulks have just set foot on land after a grueling 156-day cruise from their native Estonia. The months on the 32-square-foot raft they shared with 24 fellow emigrants have left them weak and hungry, but have not dampened their enthusiasm for beginning a new life in this strange but promising world.

Ferrous and Ada photo

Ada and Ferrous, from an undated photograph

Over the next several years, Ferrous and Ada work in various professions including carpentry, tooth painting, baby dusting, alfalfa chewing, and loitering, but nothing becomes a lasting career. One day, Ferrous fills in as a caddy at a golf course and has an epiphany. He rushes home and describes to Ada the “marvelous game” he has seen. He tells her this is the game of the future, but he believes it needs one change: There is not enough walking. He then describes his plan for “gargantuan golfe,” in which each hole is 17 miles long. Ada feigns enthusiasm for the idea, but gently guides Ferrous in the opposite direction. “Miniscule golfe” is born.

With a bank loan of $1.25, Ferrous buys a plot of farmland on which to build a course at what will later become South Van Ness and 22nd Street. Ada designs the holes and in the process makes multiple marks in history by developing a number of unique inventions, including the windmill, Astroturf, the loop-de-loop, and the tiny pencil.

They open Urban Putt on May the fifth, 1914. The business, at first, is not a success. Ferrous’s insistence that “miniscule golfe should be played with miniscule equipment” results in the use of half-inch-long clubs that are difficult to putt with and blow away in the slightest breeze. In addition, his advertising claim that the course is “96% diphtheria-free” tends to put off more customers than it attracts.

However, Ada soon comes up with an idea that turns around the economics of the business. She appeals to busy parents by offering child day care while adults play at the course. This plan not only attracts more business, but brings in significant side income by putting the children to work at tailoring and blacksmithing.

This success continues for two decades, until the advent of Proscription in 1923. The federal government passes a constitutional amendment prohibiting engagement in reduced-size sports activities, and it looks like the end for Urban Putt. Various other industries, such as mini-baseball, mini-jai-alai, mini-foosball, and mini-competitive-eating similarly seem poised for bankruptcy.

But public demand always finds a way, and soon after the institution of Proscription, the mini-sports go underground. Urban Putt adopts a front business, posing as an opium den called the Lusty Ferret, and hides the mini-golf course in a back room, concealed by clouds of opium smoke, furniture made from opium, and a concession stand selling opium cotton candy for the kids. Entry to the establishment becomes a complex process involving passwords, a special key, trap doors, hidden wall panels, a short horseback ride, passage through “The Lizard Room,” and an eyeball palpation that no one really understands the purpose of.

The influence of the opium smoke on the Urban Putt staff results in some unique and often horrifying hole designs. Legend has it that Coleridge’s epic poem “Kubla Kahn” was inspired by Urban Putt’s particularly nightmarish 16th hole, which was reputedly also responsible for a number of suicides and The Great San Francisco Putting Riot of 1924.

Thus does Urban Putt manage to survive the lean years of Proscription, until FDR, a closet mini-golf fanatic, finally pushes through repeal in 1937. (Roosevelt’s mini-golf obsession was an open secret to the press, but was never known to the public. Photos in which he was holding a putter were never released, and his scores were entered in the National Mini-Golf Registry under an assumed name.)

The next challenge for Urban Putt is the years of World War II, during which American households tighten their budgets and spend less on recreation. Ferrous and Ada’s son, Lesley Faulks, now in charge of Urban Putt, responds with a new marketing campaign that appeals to the public’s sense of patriotism. With magazine ads emblazoned with the motto “Putt for Victory,” Faulks somehow manages to convince San Franciscans that playing miniature golf is crucial to the US war effort. When the war comes to an end with the allies triumphant, Faulks is happy to claim credit.

Urban Putt has since been there to see the advent of television, the first moon landing, and the failure of watermelon Oreos. But overall, little has changed at Urban Putt in the last hundred years.  From the “Gentle day and good morrow to you” that greets you upon your arrival to the ever-turning windmill towering over Hole 5, tradition has always been the watchword of Urban Putt. And in the future, we hope to bring you more of the past, as the future becomes the present and the past bids goodbye to now.

Welcome to Urban Putt’s second century, and we hope you feel proud to be a part of history yet to be.

–Urban Putt Historian Cary Hammer