The Principal’s Nose bunker at National Golf Links on Long Island would never be mistaken for the clown’s mouth hazard at, say, Brookside Mini Golf, in Yonkers, N.Y. But that doesn’t mean that both design features can’t be the subject of spirited debate.
Since 1979, when GOLF published its first-ever ranking of the greatest courses in the world, our architecture experts have trained their eyes on layouts in nearly every style and setting: coastal, inland, mountain, prairie, public, private, old and new. In more recent years, that gaze has also focused on a proliferation of par-3 and executive courses. Nine-hole tracks have gotten the treatment, too.
Never, though, have our aficionados taken stock of golf in its most scaled-down form. Until now.
Scoff if you want. But miniature golf is a cousin of golf. It says so right there in the name. It even has a royal and ancient pedigree to prove it. According to the “Guinness Book of World Records,” the earliest documented mini-golf course was the Ladies’ Putting Green at St. Andrews, better known today as The Himalayas, which was built by Old Tom Morris, in 1867, a quick skip from the first tee of the Old Course.
Like traditional golf, mini golf soon proved adaptable — and susceptible to the ebb and flow of fashion. By the early 1900s, it had found purchase along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, from the Sandhills of North Carolina to the nascent skyline of Manhattan, where rooftop courses became a craze. In the wake of the Depression, as cash-strapped course-operators turned hubcaps, drainpipes and other salvaged objects into obstacles, jury-rigged designs emerged as the new standard, only to be upstaged by a post-War ‘purist’ movement, which in turn gave way to an age of elaborate mechanization, emblematized by windmills, active volcanoes, animatronic skeletons and more.
Miniature golf today has global reach, with more than 50-member nations in its international governing body (the World Minigolf Sport Federation). In the United States alone, there are an estimated 900 mini-golf courses, operating indoors and outdoors, in venues of all sizes, from corner pubs to expansive theme parks. Surveying the landscape is no, um, small task. But just as we rely on a panel of well-traveled experts to help us evaluate traditional courses, we have done the same (see below) for our first-ever ranking of mini-golf courses. The result is a best-of list of 50 — one course for every state — based on such criteria as quality and originality of design; atmosphere; and strategic challenge.
Rankings of this kind are, of course, subjective. And while the goal is to be credible — authoritative, even — the aim is also to arouse interest and inspire discussion. Your feedback is welcome. Bring it on!
Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a clown’s mouth to navigate.
About our raters
Dan Caprera: A Brooklyn-based writer and crossword-puzzle creator whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, New York Magazine and The New York Times, Caprera spent hundreds of hours of researching — and three consecutive months road-tripping — to find the best mini golf courses in the United States.
Aaron Kaminski: A competitor on Season 2 of ABC’s “Holey Moley”, Kaminski is the founder of O-Street Mini Golf, a New Jersey-based organization whose members travel the country playing new courses, competing in tournaments and promoting all things mini golf.
Tom Loftus: A founding member of the American Mini Golf Alliance and co-host of the Puttcast podcast, Loftus runs, with his wife, Robin, A Couple of Putts, an enterprise specializing in mini-golf design, consultation and course reviews. Together, he and Robin have played 500 courses around the world. Loftus also appeared on the first season of “Holey Moley.”
Pat Sheridan: A business-solutions designer by trade and a mini-golf fanatic by disposition, Sheridan is the media chair for the World Minigolf Sports Federation, the co-host of the Puttcast podcast, and the co-founder of The Putting Penguin, a course-review website. Competitive in the sport since 2003, Sheridan represented the USA National Minigolf Team at the 2019 World Adventure Golf Masters, in Sweden, and appeared in the first season of “Holey Moley.”
The best mini-golf course in every U.S. state
Pirate’s Island Adventure Golf, Gulf Shores
Part of a network of adventure courses concentrated largely in the southeast, this buccaneer-themed venue calls for you to play around waterfalls and streams. But its most striking feature is a mockup of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the flagship of the notorious pirate, Blackbeard, who had scary-looking facial hair but was said to be nowhere near as violent as his image suggested. In piracy, as in putting, sometimes it’s all in your head.
Putters Wild, Anchorage
Here in the largest state of the union, the best mini golf course pays small-scale tribute to big Alaskan themes. And it does so in a black-lit, indoor venue, where players are given 3-D glasses, the better to appreciate the eye-popping images of polar bears, penguins, walrus and snow-capped mountains on the walls.
Golf Land Sunsplash, Mesa
Never a dry moment in the desert — not when three entertaining mini golf courses exist within a theme park, ringed by such watery attractions as inner-tube rides and bumper boats. Like other Golf Land locales, this course is emblematic of a West Coast design style, inspired by California theme parks and marked by massive obstacles and expansive putting areas.
Golf Mountain Mini Golf, Lowell
Name aside, Golf Mountain is relatively flat. But its two 18-hole courses, ornamented with rock outcrops and water hazards, are highly entertaining. And the amiable folks who work the counter further elevate the mood.
Stagecoach Greens, San Francisco
The story of boom and bust in California has been told many times, in many forms. Here, it is conveyed through wonderfully crafted holes inspired by iconic San Francisco landmarks and historic events in the Golden State.
Adventure Golf and Raceway, Westminster
Driving and putting are the twin billings at this popular destination in suburban Denver, which is home to bumper cars, a Go-Kart track and three distinctly themed 18-hole courses. Talking animatronic figures and erupting volcanoes add to the atmospherics, as do the the pyrotechnics on the closing hole of the jungle-themed course, which shoots a giant plume of flame when you make an ace.
Matterhorn Mini Golf, Canton
A celebration of all things Swiss, this engaging course has a hole that smells like Toblerone chocolate and another that nods to tennis icon Roger Federer. There’s also a replica of the Matterhorn, natch. Don’t be surprised if a staff member bids you a fond ‘auf wiedershen’ as you depart.
Nick’s Mini Golf, Dewey Beach
To the list of notable Nicks in golf—Faldo, Price, Taylor, Watney—we add this collection of mini golf courses, with multiple locations on the Maryland and Delaware shore, including a terrific Jurassic-themed track.
Disney’s Fantasia Gardens and Fairways, Orlando
Grown-up challenge. Child-like whimsy. That’s mini golf the Disney World way, on a pair of 18-holes courses—one of which ranks among the longest artificial-turf putting courses in the country — where tutu-clad hippos and marching broomsticks are part of the scenery. Play after dark, and you’re apt to wind up putting against the backdrop of the theme park’s famous fireworks, which burst in the near-distance every night.
Tin Cup Grill, Cumming
This self-proclaimed ‘longest putting course in the country’ forgoes windmills and other standard mini golf trappings in favor of replicas of famous holes from courses such as Augusta National and Pebble Beach.
Anaina Hou Community Park, The Big Island
Situated in a Hawaiian botanical garden, this course plays through a lush landscape of island flora, with water hazards to enhance the challenge and visual appeal.
Putters Mini Golf, Twin Falls
Like a lot of the best mini golf, this welcoming venue combines a vivid sense of place with a playful sense of dislocation. While the on-course obstacles, including caves and rivers, feel very Idaho, the off-course speciality comes from elsewhere: Hawaiian shave ice, available in dozens of flavors.
Par King Skill Golf, Lincolnshire
A hotbed of mini-golf innovation, Par King opened in the late 1950s in nearby Morton Grove before moving in the 1970s to Lincolnshire, where it doubled in size and redoubled its efforts in imaginative design. Today, the venue has two 18-hole courses, with an array of water holes and a slew of elaborate contraptions, including a rollercoaster that literally takes your ball for a ride.
Ninja Golf!, Granger
With three 9-hole courses stitched through Japanese gardens, Ninja Golf is less a place for stealth warriors than it is a sanctuary for meditative putting. Consider it a rare chance to relax as you try to get the ball in the x#@!!!!!-ing hole.
Mini Pines, Cedar Rapids
Operated by the local Parks and Recreation Department, this course loops through a verdant setting on its way to a pond and a nine-foot waterfall, with four holes that bring water into play. It also sits alongside a regulation 18-hole municipal course, which is tempting. Just be forewarned: traditional golf is hard.
Smiley’s Golf Complex, Lenexa
Of the two 18-hole courses here, one is Halloween-themed. The other, more challenging track draws inspiration from traditional golf, and includes tributes to holes from Pine Valley and other famous courses.
Malibu Jack’s, Lexington
Neither rain nor sleet nor annoying twigs or leaves interrupt your play on this engaging course because, well, it is indoors, part of a sprawling family-friendly venue that also features Go-Karts, laser tag, and arcade games.
City Putt Miniature Golf Course, New Orleans
This big-hearted venue in the Big Easy has two courses, one of which is inspired by cultural themes and cities throughout the state. The other is New Orleans-focused, with signs on each hole that tell of historic city landmarks.
Dolphin Mini Golf, Boothbay
Tucked into an oak grove along the coast, Dolphin Mini Golf combines a beautiful location with the charms of a lovingly maintained, hand-built course. All the holes are ace-able, and memorable. But the two signatures are the 9th (Dolphin) and the 16th (Whale), each designed to look the part.
Old Pro Golf 68th Street, Ocean City
In a coastal town where mini golf abounds, this 36-hole venue stands out for its indoor course, an intricately detailed design replete with hidden grottos, water features and outsize representations of dinosaurs and marine animals.
Prodigy Mini Golf, Easthampton
In many cases, mini golf is child’s play. Not at Prodigy, a challenging indoor course, decorated with metal art, in a throwback venue where alcohol is not served and kids under 13 years of age are not allowed. There is also a game room, where Tetris and other old-school diversions are intended to give children of the ‘80s and ‘90s a chance to revisit their youthful obsessions.
Into the Woods Mini Golf, Copper Harbor
The surroundings at this endearing little course aren’t so much woods as they are gardens, a delightfully soothing setting for holes that can be deceptively tough.
Big Stone Mini Golf, Minnetrista
Mini golf as public art. The routing of this inventive 14-hole course is integrated with a sculpture garden, which features large kinetic structures on a property fringed by pasture where cows and horses roam.
Lava Links Golf Club, D’Iberville
Part of a popular Gulf Coast casino, Lava Links offers a wholesome form of fun, with two island-themed courses that run past waterfalls, over footbridges and around abundant gardens, in the shadow of a giant erupting volcano.
Shoot for the Stars Mini Golf, Branson
Hollywood by way of the Ozarks. This entertaining course plots its way through palm trees and paparazzi, on a tour that maps out an 18-step path to celebrity. Famous landmarks like Grauman’s Chinese Theater and Capitol Records make up the scenery, and the recorded voice of an over-the-top agent, Marty McBooster, offers advice on every hole.
Valley View Garden Golf, Great Falls
A lot of mini golf courses are owned by big companies that stamp out cloned designs around the country. Valley View could hardly be more different. Family-owned and operated, it sits on lovely, flower-covered grounds, oozing with charm and strategic challenge. Other courses might have more money behind them. But there’s no substitute for TLC.
Prehistoric Putt, Lincoln
Dino-themed courses are a dime a dozen. But indoor dino-themed courses are a rarer breed, and this might be the T-Rex of them. Along with more than 20 life-sized raptors, it also features cool, contemporary obstacles, including a halfpipe and a maze. Call it a Jurassic playground, updated for the modern age.
Kiss Monster Mini Golf, Las Vegas
Rock tunes blare. Bright lights glare. And a live DJ shouts out to golfers as they play. Inside the Rio casino, this very Vegas venue pays amped-up tribute to a band better remembered for its costumes than for its compositions. The result is an outrageous kind of entertainment, highlighted by a hole that calls for you to putt up a giant version of Gene Simmons’ tongue.
In the spirit of stat-tracking, let’s run through some numbers. Chuckster’s boasts 12,000-square-feet of carpet; !,000 tons of boulders, nine streams and ponds, and a hole, the 13th, that stretches 201 feet, making it what ownership claims to be longest miniature hole in the world.
Pine Creek Miniature Golf, West Amwell
Forget windmills and clown noses. With a pair of courses—the Upper and the Lower; just like Baltusrol!—spread across six beautifully landscaped acres, Pine Creek offers a pure putting experience amid ponds, fountains, waterfalls, conifers and creeks.
Hinkle Fun Center, Albuquerque
Waterfalls, gazebos, fountains and tree houses are among the lovingly designed features at this welcoming venue, which is home to two courses, aptly named Streams and Lake.
Around the World Miniature Golf, Lake George
One of the oldest continuously operating mini golf venues in the country, Around the World was built in 1963 by a globe-trotting local named Harry Horn. The two 18-hole designs here, inspired by Horn’s world travels, are kitschy in the best way, with replicas of landmarks ranging from the New York subway to the Taj Mahal.
The holes are hand-crafted. The cocktails, too. This vibrant indoor venue, just blocks from downtown Charlotte, bills itself as an “urban golf club,” and it lives up to that promise with a space that houses a Mid-Century-style bar and restaurant alongside a whimsically designed nine-hole course.
Little Bully Pulpit Mini Golf, Medora
In the heart of the badlands of North Dakota, the town of Medora has an official population of just over 100 that triples in the summer from tourist traffic. One of the attractions is Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in a setting as rugged as its namesake. Another is this course, which has sandstone outcrops as obstacles that marry perfectly with the surrounds.
Fairfield Fun Center, Fairfield
A full swing and a putting stroke are not the same. To illustrate the difference, we point you to this family-friendly venue, which has batting cages, a driving range and a beautifully designed mountain-themed course that winds around streams and waterfalls. Which is harder: hitting a fastball or draining a 10-footer? This is a good place to find out.
Brickopolis, Oklahoma City
Bricktown Canal is a popular public waterway featuring parks, pubs, museums and other artful attractions, including this elegant 18-hole courses, which plays over bridges and around waterfalls.
Glowing Greens, Portland
If you think tough putts are scary, try making them on a black-lit, indoor course where glowing 3-D skeletons and other spooky figures help create a haunted atmosphere.
Village Greens, Strasburg
Mark Twain never would have called mini golf “a good walk spoiled.” Not if he’d played these two courses, which are set on 13 bucolic acres of rivers, forests and wooden bridges. Playing here is like going for a hike with a putter in hand.
Mulligan’s Island, Cranston
Spliced by rivers and ringed by dramatic landscaping, the two courses here are designed to make you feel like you’re putting on a volcanic island. To punctuate the point, both are also anchored by — guess what?—a volcano, with fire shooting from its crater and water spilling down its slopes.
Mr. Atanticus, Myrtle Beach
Outsize in every sense, this 36-hole facility, which features towering waterfalls, labyrinthine caves and a physical ascent to a 75-foot peak that gives way to views of the Atlantic Ocean, was built at a reported cost of $3 million—a hefty price that has paid off in what one of our panelists describes as “the best mini golf in America.”
Deadwood Mini Golf, Deadwood
If you’re up on history, or watch a lot of prestige TV, you know that Deadwood was once a lawless Gold Rush boomtown. True to that past, this engaging course is frontier-themed, but it is also calm and orderly, perhaps because it sits on the grounds of a Comfort Inn.
Hillbilly Golf, Gatlinburg
Before you strike a putt, you must first take a ride on a railcar, up some 300 feet, to a hilltop. Here, two entertaining courses await, their holes lined with bourbon casks, moonshine kettles and other Appalachian-themed obstacles.
Peter Pan Mini Golf, Austin
Peter Pan is an emblem of eternal childhood, and the two courses here are sure to please the young ones with classic obstacles like a loop-the-loop and playful figures ranging from a turtle to a T-Rex. But adults will not feel ignored either. The venue, after all, is BYOB.
Boondocks Food and Fun, Draper
The food comes in the form of burgers, pizza and other standard fare. The fun is more unusual, on two themed courses set in the shadow of a 30-foot volcano, and watched over by such figures as a fire-breathing lizard and a smoke-blowing character known as the “Tiki Man.”
Lots-o-Balls Mini Golf, Duxbury
At this tree-lined course, nestled in the hills of the Green Mountain state, a statue of a brown bear serves as an obstacle. But the hole with the most teeth requires a deftly controlled putt over a series of steep humps and hollows: the mini-golf version of a roller coaster.
If there’s a CB MacDonald of miniature golf, it’s Don Clayton, a pioneering figure in the game who turned his course designs into templates. In the 1950s, dismayed at the preponderance of cheap, gimmicky tracks, Clayton dreamed up what he billed as “no-frills, all-skills” mini golf. Every copyrighted hole, built from sturdy, concrete, covered in smooth carpet and free of goofy obstacles to minimize flukes, was designed as a par-2, the idea being that a skilled putter would always have a chance at a hole in one. Clayton’s first location, in North Carolina, proved so popular that he built another, and another, proliferating to the point where the brandname, Putt-Putt, became synonymous with mini golf. At its peak, Putt-Putt spawned 265 courses. There are far fewer today, but fine examples remain, including this one.
Orcas Island Mini Golf, Eastsound
Situated on the largest of the San Juan Islands, alongside a traditional golf course of the same name, this vividly themed course calls for you to navigate such maritime-tinged obstacles as ferries, bridges, boat propellers and orca whales.
Coal Country Miniature Golf, Fairmont
The “windmill” here is not a windmill but a giant operational mine fan, one of many pieces of authentic coal-mining equipment, including loading machines and crib blocks, that ornament this regionally inspired course.
Vitense Golfland, Madison
One minute, you’re riding a monorail over a pit. The next you’re sliding down a mine shaft through a mountain, or walking and putting under a giraffe. You get the picture: in a city that takes pride in its quirky reputation, the three courses at Vitense (two indoor, one outdoor) more than pull their weight in whimsy, with wildly entertaining interactive holes.
Old Town Family Fun, Casper
Inspired by the frontier history of Casper, a former stop on the Pony Express, this course offers a ride through the Old West, with obstacles that range from mining machinery to wagon wheels. Snacks and drinks are served from a restaurant styled as a “trading post.”