Miniature golf will never be remotely cool. A deadly cocktail of suburban luxury, Disneyland decor, and, well, golf, this cultural phenomenon will forever cater to its relentlessly unhip three-tier demographic: hyperactive children, harried parents of hyperactive children, and teenage sweethearts who have not yet discovered coitus.
Not surprisingly, the elitist enclaves of Oakland and Berkeley are having none of this. But reputable mini-golf establishments do dot the fringes of the East Bay, enticing the good peoples of Antioch and Fremont and Castro Valley and Pleasanton with triumphant castles, lewd animal statues, nefarious water hazards, demonic Volcano Holes, and cacophonic, Dance Dance Revolution-dominated arcades. Shall we putter about?
Golf N Games
501 Somersville Rd., Antioch, 925-754-5100. GolfNGames.com
Attention, elitist residents of Oakland and Berkeley: Antioch is incredibly far away. Like, Reno far away. So pile all the Pixar-approved DVDs you can muster into the ol' minivan if you need to narcotize a boatload of kiddies, and bring a discreet flask of Johnny Walker Red to narcotize yourself at a picnic table listening to Patsy Cline's "Crazy" on the free jukebox PA system as the little scamps tear about the enormous arcade, batting cages (the softball machine tends to pitch high and inside), and ludicrously tiny go-kart track (roughly the size of your living room; even the teenage girl running the joint looked thoroughly embarrassed).
The mini-golf courses themselves -- two sets of eighteen holes, like every other East Bay joint -- are certainly posh, framed by Antioch's lovely, leafy summer weather and carpeted by verdant, multicolored greens. It's a garish yet comforting scene of fake naturalization ordinarily seen only in Las Vegas.
My considerable childhood experience notwithstanding, it is immediately clear that I now suck at mini golf. The relatively basic (read: boring) spread of Golf N Games obstacles consists mainly of Bank Shots and, most infuriatingly, Volcano Holes, in which the cup is raised to create a conical shape that will cause you to miss the hole and slide down the hill on the other side roughly 90 percent of the time. Rage rage rage rage. My official companion and scorekeeper looked on with amusement as I rattled off a litany of fives and sixes, and began adorning the scorecard with both my ongoing dialogue ("That's not cheating, it's a course flaw, my darling") and her own running commentary ("Hole 12: Resorts to kicking"). From now on, I'm doing this alone.
Worse yet, there are no impressive windmills or castles or Eiffel Tower replicas to distract you. Instead, you get a series of unimaginative mini-structures that split the difference between Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and a Southern plantation: Putt up the ramp into the schoolhouse, and the ball slides down a tube and onto the green one level below. A few holes later, putt into the General Store. A few holes later, put Bad Company's "Feel Like Makin' Love" on the jukebox and get the hell out of there.
Price per 18 holes: $7
Can I easily sneak on the other course for free? Goddamn right.
Difficulty: 4/5 (Curse you, Volcano Hole.)
Structural innovation: 1/5 (The Matchbox 20 of course design.)
Other amenities: 2/5 (Santana on the jukebox PA is a nice touch, but that go-kart track is a crock.)
Windmill bonus: N/A
34805 Ardenwood Blvd, Fremont, 510-790-1616.
Immediately, Karts-N-Golf immerses you in a more creative and surreal putting environment -- on the second hole of the Gold Rush course, you are compelled to whack your ball into the crotch of a giant mutant tree-person. There is also the matter of the outhouse. But the true stroke of genius here is the addition of Penalty Cups and Bonus Cups. Add one stroke if you fall in the former, subtract one for the latter. So as to exacerbate your ulcer, the Bonus Cups are shot-glass-sized.
KNG evidently takes this whole "mini golf" thing seriously: Many holes literally feature fairway, rough, green, sand traps (signified by stylish-ass white shag carpet), and water hazards (often filled with actual water). One particular hole featured a Penalty Cup, a Bonus Cup, and an ominous mini-pond, a smorgasbord of sensory overload so overwhelming I knocked it in the drink three straight times, and soon thereafter resorted to kicking.
The second course goes the zoo route, featuring giraffes, zebras, a gorilla, and, climactically, an elephant fountain that appears to be urinating out of its trunk. Nice waterfall, too. Furthermore, the eighteenth hole features a cage filled with actual live birds, who unfortunately don't seem too amenable to the idea of learning offensive phrases to shout at the nearby batting cage patrons. As the name would suggest, there are also bumper cars and a go-kart track that doesn't inspire hoots of derision.
Price per 18 holes: $7
Can I easily sneak on the other course for free? Just jump the fence, dawg.
Difficulty: 3/5 (Look out for those stylish-ass sand traps.)
Structural innovation: 3/5 (Can't go wrong with an outhouse.)
Other amenities: 3/5 (Since when did batting cages get so expensive?)
Windmill bonus: N/A
2400 Kitty Hawk Road, Livermore, 925-447-7275.
At the register hangs a sign: "Now hiring friendly team members with a positive, can-do attitude." Applicants are immediately shipped to Iraq.
This is essentially Livermore's Disneyland, a Sierra Club-pristine panorama of unnatural beauty built around a bright-blue bumper boat lake. It's a spiritual experience, a pilgrimage to putt-putt's Vatican City. Just look out for those lumpy greens. Miniature golf traditionally requires no actual skill or green-reading ability, but Boomers flaunts all manner of geometrically complex landscaping scenarios -- a rare chance to worry that your three-foot putt will break left. Should this state of affairs drive you to tomahawk your club in disgust, we suggest you don't throw it north onto I-580 or west onto the rather elaborate go-kart track.
Speaking of which, Boomers' go-kart track, like all such attractions, has "No Bumping" signs plastered anywhere, when everyone fully realizes that ramming your friends into walls and attempting to T-bone them on hairpin turns are the only possible reasons to get into a go-kart. But I digress.
Boomers' dual courses are breathtaking, the bumper boat lake placid, the greens challenging, the arcade cavernous, the lazer tag room intriguing, the piped in British synth-pop (Depeche Mode) oddly soothing. But it's a distant beauty that leaves one cold, a 2001: A Space Odyssey Effect. The majesty of the windmill castle notwithstanding.
Price per 18 holes: $6
Can I easily sneak on the other course for free? Don't mind if I do.
Difficulty: 3/5 (Bring a caddy if the greens get too intimidating.)
Structural innovation: 2/5 (Breathtaking but passionless.)
Other amenities: 4/5 (The go kart track even has a leader board -- doesn't work, but still.)
Windmill bonus: Lovely
Golden Tee Golfland
2533 Castro Valley Blvd., Castro Valley, 510-537-2168.
I declare, without irony or hyperbole, that this is the most compelling and transcendent miniature-golf experience of my life.
Golden Tee Golfland announces its presence via a comically oversized castle looming merrily over Castro Valley Boulevard. "Comically oversized" is this joint's overall theme -- lengthwise, the holes are enormous, rivaling your daily walk to BART. Visually, it's a fantastical panorama of dragons and castles and fountains that soon lapses into an anything-goes pastiche that is both disorienting and exhilarating. One four-hole stretch begins with the ultrarare Giant Vertical Log, which swings like a pendulum over the cup. Then two giant consecutive hills lead to a Volcano Hole (avast!). Then comes a life-size loop-de-loop fully capable of knocking you unconscious. Finally, there's a 25-foot-high Chinese pagoda.
This place is insane.
Golfland eventually devolves into thematic incoherence -- old mine shafts right next to medieval joust runs, overlooked by a splendid, towering windmill -- but peaks with three awe-inspiring Skee-Ball Holes, in which you literally smash the ball as hard as you can up a ramp and into a giant three-level, beanbag-toss bull's-eye -- I try the first such hole ten to fifteen times in a row until an errant smash nearly ends up in the parking lot. That one full side of the property is lined with razor wire only heightens the appeal.
Gargantuan and gargantuanly inventive, Golfland may not be as physically and emotionally satisfying as coitus, but it provides a temporary and reasonable substitute. Looking cool is overrated, anyway.
Price per 18 holes: $7.50
Can I easily sneak on the other course for free? Just look nonchalant.
Difficulty: 4/5 (Golfland is not responsible for freakish head injuries.)
Structural innovation: 5/5 (Great googly moogly.)
Other amenities: 4/5 (Big whompin' arcade.)
Windmill bonus: A bit of a non sequitur, but still effective.
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