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Miniature Golf in the Myrtle Beach area

Jessica Taylor and Gary Black Jr. lined up their shots for the 17th hole on one of the two courses at Cancun Lagoon Mayan Adventure Golf in Myrtle Beach.

On the final day of their spring break, the native northern North Carolinians, both students at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., opted for the play-all-day rate. Both courses start inside and wind up outside.

Wrapping up a third game, Taylor and Black said spending a Sunday afternoon playing miniature golf made their trip complete.

"It was one of our requirements for coming to Myrtle Beach," Black said, "because it's the putt-putt capital."

Taylor discussed some strategy before teeing off.

"You try to guess where your ball will go before you take your first shot," she said.

Taylor and Black said mini-golf engrossed them in childhood in their respective small towns, usually with just one course around. However, taking vacations with their families to the Grand Strand fed the hunger for hitting more greens.

The pair also said just being outside in the sun gave them some quality time to enjoy the easy-going atmosphere of the beach, and to take on a new challenge at every hole, whether going up or down a slope that requires using banks to move the ball, or hole 15 at both Cancun Lagoon courses, where players hit a ball that cascades in a waterfall from a second story overlooking South Ocean Boulevard to the ground.

Mini-golf continues to be a hallmark of this area, with more than 30 courses from Calabash, N.C., south through North Myrtle Beach, Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach to Murrells Inlet.

Owners of the courses customize their theme. The sounds of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" on steel drums fit in with the Jamaican aura at Runaway Bay Miniature Golf in Garden City Beach, where the 18th hole on the Dunn's River Falls course entails quite the zigzag ending.

Animated dinosaur figures pop on and off, and up and down, at Jurassic Golf in Myrtle Beach. Mayday Golf in North Myrtle Beach stands out with two courses built around a suspended yellow twin-propeller plane. In Myrtle Beach, Jungle Lagoon Miniature Golf and Mt. Atlanticus Minotaur Goff each take players on a gradual incline that offers panoramic views of the coast.

'It's family'

Tim Marks owns Cancun Lagoon and two other courses in North Myrtle Beach: Molten Mountain Miniature Golf and Mutiny Bay Caribbean Adventure Golf. The first two stay open year round, and all premiered from 2001 to 2006.

Marks needed just one word to describe mini-golf's greatest reward for people.

"It's family," he said. "It's as simple as that. It's time together."

Some people get serious about the game, but most do not, Marks has observed.

"It's about goofing around," he said. "It's about having fun, and hugging and enjoying each other. That's what it's all about."

Marks has read that during the Great Depression, two of the biggest entertainment choices were mini-golf and roller skating.

"We're fortunate we have both," he said, fresh from opening the Fun Warehouse family entertainment center near Surfside Beach last fall.

An outing for mini-golf gets people together not only for camaraderie by families and friends, but for good causes, such as the second annual Mini-Golf Tournament to benefit the American Red Cross Coastal South Carolina Chapter Heroes Campaign, at 1 p.m. Saturday at NASCAR Speedpark in Myrtle Beach.

Marks said he and his family have designed about a quarter of the courses across the Strand.

"When we're going to do one, it starts on a napkin," he said, prefacing what evolves into a mammoth project. "People want more than just hitting a ball with the club. They want to be taken somewhere."

Whether with pirates, volcanoes or large creatures such as dinosaurs, courses give customers an escape, and often an education, like on Blackbeard or the diet of a tyrannosaurus rex.

At Mutiny Bay, the sounds of pirates chanting and the use of water cannons on explosions immerse golfers into seemingly precarious environs.

"You don't hear the cars going by," Marks said, "You feel like you're down in the Caribbean, and you feel like you're about to be attacked by pirates."

'Learning about life'

Bob Detwiler has owned Hawaiian Rumble Golf and Hawaiian Village Golf, both open year round in North Myrtle Beach, for about 20 years.

Hawaiian Rumble also doubles as the home of the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association, for which Detwiler is founder and president.

He said he has played mini-golf his whole life and that the game gives entry to the bigger links.

"Ninety-five percent of the people who play golf started by playing mini-golf," he said, always eager to welcome boys and girls clubs for recreation outings.

The simple game of mini-golf provides opportunities to instill youth with some lifelong values.

"It's teaching them etiquette on the golf course, how to get along with each other," Detwiler said. "It's a whole new activity that a lot of kids can do. Not everybody can play baseball, football and basketball. It opens up the world to a lot of kids who could not compete in a sport, and now they can."

Detwiler said the sport's bounds come without limits so early on.

"A 2-year-old can play miniature golf and learn while they're at it," he said. "It's a learning experience, and learning about life."

Unlike the customary white balls on traditional golf courses, colors come into play. Detwiler said pink remains a popular color when people pick their ball for a round.

"Blue is popular because of the University of North Carolina and Duke," he said of the college basketball powerhouses. "And red is popular because of Ohio State. We get a lot of Buckeyes. College kids come here on spring break, and they want their school colors."

Detwiler, with six pet parrots that welcome customers, has seen mini-golf in general develop from "gimmicks" such as windmills and alligators, to a higher emphasis placed on "Professional Golf Association-style putting greens."

Detwiler has replaced carpets this year at both his courses.

"It's the carpet that a lot of the pros used in their backyards," he said.

Detwiler has scheduled the ProMiniGolf Association's U.S. Open May 13-15 in Branson, Mo., and the 15th annual Masters National ProMiniGolf Championship Oct. 13-15 locally at both of his courses. (Details at 458-2585 or 272-7812, and prominigolf.com.)

Detwiler also likes globetrotting to promote the sport. He said he has spoken this past year about Pakistani and Israeli delegations possibly competing at both events.

"We had a China Open last year," Detwiler said, "and one in the Czech Republic, and we're adding more all the time."

Planning proceeds for championships in Finland, Israel and Italy.

"We're promoting peace worldwide through mini-golf," Detwiler said.

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