Everything you might expect to find in a shopping mall you can find in the Holyoke (Mass.) Mall. A shoe store, a boutique, another shoe store, a bookshop, another shoe store, a miniature golf course, another shoe store....
A miniature golf course?
Sure enough. On the mall's lowest level, hard by the fast-food restaurants, is a neon sign welcoming shoppers to Birdies & Bogeys. Don't for a minute think that this is your standard windmills/clown heads/loop-the-loops/putt-putt setup. No, this is miniature golf as the Japanese might do it: bonsai golf, with everything realistic, only smaller. The holes, like regulation golf holes, are hilly, contoured layouts with fairways and readable greens, regular rough and sand-filled bunkers. The water hazards are running streams and lakes. There are tiny trees and shrubs, and signs that read NO CARTS BEYOND HERE and REPLACE YOUR DIVOTS. Only the pins and ball washer are life-sized. And it all fits neatly into half an acre of mallspace.
Birdies & Bogeys is the creation of Forrec International, a Toronto-based corporation that designs, builds and manages indoor amusement facilities. According to William Canner, vice-president of operations for Forrec, "One of the items that seemed to stand out at our parks—that we thought might be profitable on its own—was the golf. A branch of our company builds regulation golf courses, so we took our outdoor landscaping background and miniaturized it." And took it to the mall.
Currently, there are three mall courses—the Holyoke links, which opened in April 1989, an 18-hole course in Buffalo, and a nine-hole course in Toronto—and plans are afoot for more, either as franchises or as Forrec-licensed and-operated links. "It's challenging," says Ed Mulhern, the manager of the Holyoke course. "You use real golf skills. But you can't take it too seriously."
To see what he means, I play a round with Mulhern. I feel like Gulliver playing in the member-guest tournament at Lilliput Country Club, par 46. Towering pines reach to my shoulder. The bunkers look like spilled ashtrays. The downhill fairway at the first hole runs to a green 32 feet away. Par is 2. "Keep right," Mulhern advises, pointing out a water hazard—a babbling brook—to the left. The brook may be just three feet wide, but the water is real, and it quickly swallows my tee shot. Double bogey 4.
With Mulhern offering tips, I play the next six holes in a sizzling one over. A four-foot putt on the 5th hole gives me my first birdie, and I sink one out of the trap to save par on the 6th. I go swimming on eight and nine, and make the turn at six-over 29, one behind Mulhern.
At the 10th I play my drive smartly off the rocks to within an inch of the cup and tap in for birdie. A birdie at 11 and a par at 12 and I'm mini-Nicklaus at mini-Augusta. But 13 is a killer: uphill, 34 feet long, a ramp over water to a tricky green. I'm in the drink. Twice. I pick up after six strokes, the highest score allowed. So does Mulhern.
The back nine at Holyoke is lovely, and 14 and 15 are particularly scenic. The former is downhill to an island green with a footbridge off to the right. The latter presents a long and narrow fairway lined with stately six-foot fir trees and several ashtray bunkers. "Accuracy is key," says Mulhern. Par and bogey here. The 16th is the course "monster"—45 treacherous uphill feet. "You've got to blast it," Mulhern says at the tee, and does. I blast as well; pars for both. At 17 Mulhern's drive sneaks through the barrier behind the green, out of bounds. "There's supposed to be a rock there," he mutters as he retrieves his ball from the 12th tee. He replaces the missing rock and not a moment too soon, as I bounce my tee shot off it to within three feet of the pin. Another par.
The 18th, surely as tough a finishing hole as there is in all of miniature golf, is uphill, long and over water. It has 6 written all over it. Even so, my final score of 57—or 11 over, which, appropriately, is a miniaturized version of my full-sized handicap—beats Mulhern by three strokes.
We turn in our putters. I'm feeling flush with my small victory. Winning at Birdies & Bogeys is far more satisfying than winning at your basic putt-putt. If there were a miniature 19th hole, I would happily buy Ed a four-ounce beer.
Free-lancer David Levine, of Nassau, N.Y., is the author of "Life on the Rim, "about the CBA.