Ralph J. Lomma, who gave minature golf its zany flair, dies at 87

September 15, 2011

Ralph J. Lomma, whose whimsical miniature golf course designs helped popularize the game in post-World War II America and who turned a business of prefabricated courses — complete with ball-deflecting windmills — into a worldwide empire, died Sept. 12 at a hospice in Scranton, Pa. He was 87.

He had complications from a fall, said his son, Jonathan Lomma.

Miniature golf had been present in the United States since at least the turn of the 20th century but lacked a zany flair. It was, in fact, this dullness that Mr. Lomma and his younger brother Alphonse set out to rectify.

They had been inspired by a visit to Wildwood, N.J., where they saw a popular mini-golf course that seemed too easy and “too still.”

The Lommas opened their own mini-golf course in Scranton in 1955. They added the missing excitement and claimed to be responsible for infuriating millions of putter-gripping golfers, especially those who aimed at a miniature windmill only to have the revolving blade swipe their ball away.

Eventually their courses included paddle wheels, blinking traffic lights and wishing wells.

“Ralph Lomma was a shrewd businessman,” mini-golf historian Susan R. Chandler wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post. “He and his brother Al took what might have been a passing craze for windmills, zig-zags, and colored balls, and helped establish miniature golf as a fixture in American recreational life.”

During a post-World War II resurgence in mini-golf popularity — it was an inexpensive family activity in the aftermath of the baby boom — the Lommas were “instrumental in the renaissance of inspired, stunt courses which featured moving hazards and required accuracy and concentration,” Chandler wrote in a 2000 mini-golf historical essay, “Lilli-putt-ian Landmarks.”

Within a few years, the Lommas began making prefabricated courses. Ralph Lomma handled the business-side of the company and helped imagine new course hazards. Alphonse, who died in 1977, tinkered with motors, belts, gears and pulleys to create the mechanical obstacles. Ralph Lomma said the clown-faced hole at the end of the course that collected players’ balls was his idea.

“We’re the original designers of windmills, castles, churches, things like that,” Mr. Lomma told the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Times Leader last year. “We have a lot of imitators.”

Mr. Lomma marketed their modular designs as businesses that required little expertise or maintenance. He called his mini-golf courses “money machines” and often said the game was recession-proof.

“It costs less than a ticket to the movies.” Mr. Lomma told the Associated Press in 1984. “Everybody can play it. It’s one of the few things a family can play and stay together while doing it.”

The Lommas sold nearly 6,000 golf courses around the world and transformed the one-room business they started in a basement into a manufacturing conglomerate with its own fleet of tractor-trailers.

Lomma courses have been built in 37 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Nairobi and Vietnam. One was constructed on the roof of a Holiday Inn in China. Others have been installed on military bases, cruise ships and in federal penitentiaries.

Ralph John Lomma (pronounced Loam-ah) was born March 13, 1924, in Scranton. He attended the University of Scranton, where he studied architecture. He served as an Army Air Forces reconnaissance pilot in the Pacific during World War II.

Before opening his mini-golf business, he made skillets and sold die-cast ornaments. With the capital from the mini-golf success, Mr. Lomma invested in a variety of projects.

He owned 28 water utilities around Scranton and developed the Elk Mountain Ski Resort in Union Dale, Pa., and its accompanying Four Seasons Village of Swiss-inspired chalets. (A baked doughnut business failed to catch on, and Mr. Lomma sold the citrus groves he owned near Orlando after struggling to combat frost.)

He served on the board of directors for American Film Technologies, the company that enraged classic movie fans in the 1980s by colorizing “Casablanca.”

Survivors include his wife of 37 years, Joyce Hydeck Lomma of Union Dale, and their son, Jonathan Lomma of New York; and a grandson.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.