Just a few blocks from Busch Gardens, Tampa are the abandoned remains of what was once a thriving Putt Putt Golf. It’s hard to find out exactly when this course closed – it became rather irrelevant in the 90s when Congo River Golf opened just down the road, but apparently it hobbled along until 2004. The property has been sitting empty since then, leaving behind the concrete architecture of a 54 hole course, a rotting gazebo, shreds of deteriorating turf, broken benches and a boarded up putter return – all of which is still encircled by Putt Putt’s trademark orange fence. The whole course is now being claimed by Floridian flora and fauna. Where families once gathered to play mini golf there are now snakes and lizards sunning themselves on the stripped greens – not to mention several varieties of plants extending their vines and sprouting new starts up through the deserted holes. It’s actually quite interesting and beautiful – in that way that all abandoned sites can be.
As we entered vacant property we could almost feel the ghost of Putt Putt’s mascot Buster Ball welcoming our presence. Okay maybe not, but it was eerie walking through the seemingly forgotten course, especially when the almost 3-foot black racer slithered by. Even though most of the turf on the greens has rotten away you can still see the weathering patterns indicating where the carpet was glued to the cement. Sometimes you can see the color variations where a set of aluminum triangles would have created a narrow passage to the hole. There are still pipes that directly block a neat shot, and you can even see the bane of Sabrina’s childhood mini golfing existence – Putt Putt’s ever popular hole embedded in a slope.* This was the golfer’s mini-golf. No gimmicks, no theming, no moving parts – just a challenging game, where achieving a hole-in-one would give you the high honor of finishing out the game with an orange ball, the mark of mastery for all other players to see.
More perplexing than why the property hasn’t been resurrected or bulldozed in the past five years is why the business failed to in the first place. It is literally within walking distance of Busch Gardens, for tourists, and is centrally located for Tampa’s locals. And, as is abundantly clear, it wouldn’t take much to have a better course than Grand Prix.
Ultimately, we believe that the decline of miniature golf in Tampa has occurred for several reasons. First, there has been an explosion of golf communities in the area – you can have a course literally in your backyard, if you can afford it. Eighteen new courses have been built in the last 20 years in the Tampa Bay area. While this doesn’t hold a candle to the boom between 1960 and 1980 during which 35 courses were built, the current existence of 64 public and private courses, many of which offer youth programs, within 25 miles of Tampa’s city center must have impacted the entertainment complexes. The availability of “real” golf courses for locals combined with the distinctly adult tone of Tampa’s major tourist activities (Gasparilla, the one-day annual pirate invasion that has recently expanded to encompass the entire month of February; Ybor City’s Guavaween, or Ybor City at any time really, whose closest relation is the French Quarter in New Orleans; three professional sports teams; world-renowned strip clubs where the six-foot rule is not strictly enforced; and a theme park with massive roller coasters and, until recently, free beer) in comparison to some of the nearby beach towns or Orlando doesn’t leave much of an audience for traditionally perceived “family” tourist activities like miniature golf. And of course, the rise of home-based entertainment during the last two decades probably keeps the youngsters indoors and online, especially in the sweltering Florida heat.
We don’t know what’s going to happen to the remains of the abandoned Putt Putt, but we are considering weeding out the holes and playing a couple rounds with the new natural obstacles before it gets paved and converted into another crappy strip mall.
Guerilla golf anyone?
P.S. If you’re afraid of snakes you might want to sit this one out.
*To this day, I groan with despair every time I encounter an anthill-like hole on a small raised platform. They are my worst enemy. However, I have yet to see anything as malevolent as some of Putt Putt’s slope holes anywhere else. I mean, come on, placing the hole in a 45-degree 12-inch slope that ends at the back wall is just sadistic. – Sabrina.