A Swing Through Myrtle Beach
Sunday, June 29, 2008
It is a terrain of surpassing beauty: gently rolling, bathed in emerald, covered by an ominous mist. It is morning. A gentle breeze tries, and fails, to cut the humidity. With each step, I inch closer to the rumbling giant, my heart racing as I wind my way through dense underbrush. All at once, there it is: the volcano itself, vast and roiling. It dominates the landscape, cloaking me in shadow. I struggle to get a better look, but I've waited too long. Suddenly the mighty mountain erupts, exploding with a deafening roar. I scramble. All sense of time is lost.
At some point, who knows when, I look down. Remarkably, I am still clutching my putter, having retreated to the relative safety of the 12th hole. You tried to best me, oh Hawaiian Rumble miniature golf course in North Myrtle Beach, S.C. But I have dug deep, and survival is mine.
Until, that is, exactly 20 minutes from now, when the thing will go off again.
Not wanting to tempt fate twice, I bolt to the clubhouse. There, behind a counter covered with golf clubs of every conceivable size and golf balls of every conceivable hue, sits Bo Taylor. He is, I immediately decide, a rare sort of South Carolinian. Rare not because he spends most of his waking hours at Hawaiian Rumble, the most important course in what is indisputably the mini-golf capital of the world. And rare not because he travels from home to work each morning in a burgundy golf cart outfitted with mag wheels. No, Bo Taylor is rare because of his decades-long, unrepentant, curator's love of kitsch. Good kitsch, I mean.
And one thing's certain: He needn't fear for his legacy. Myrtle Beach's ability to attract and breed kitsch -- good kitsch, I mean -- is something even more fearsome than Taylor's volcano. And that's no small part of the area's charm. In fact, you could argue that America needs more of these Black Swan landscapes, where past is no guide to future, where nutty ideas invariably find fertile soil, where improbable notions can become a life's work.
"I joke about it, but it's very serious business," says Taylor, 50. How serious? Olympic Games serious. It turns out that Taylor and a guy by the name of Bob Detwiler are busily readying for the day that the International Olympic Committee decides to include miniature golf in its roster of summer sports. For now, Detwiler, who is president of the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association, is content to run the group's Masters tournament, which is played here each fall on two courses, the Hawaiian Rumble and nearby Hawaiian Village, both of which he owns. In past years, Masters winners have received about $18,000 in prize money, not to mention a green jacket.
"Let me rephrase that. You get a green windbreaker," says Taylor, adding that the 12-round tournament regularly attracts premier competitors from around the world, including Olivia Prokopova, a Czech teen phenom who travels with an entourage, and a Swedish champion named Hans Olofsson. The atmosphere at the Masters of mini-golf is every bit as tense as the one at that other Masters, Taylor says, and many a talented putt-putter has let a nine-stroke lead get away under the glare of the cameras.
"They say to themselves, 'I'm gonna be on ESPN2,' and that plays with their heads," Taylor reports.
* * *
Like many other things in Myrtle Beach, the extraordinary number of miniature golf courses is unexplainable, or rather explainable but not persuasively so. For instance, during a recent three-day stay when the weather was gorgeous and not a single cloud marred the sky, I heard variously that there were 36, 46 or 50 mini-golf courses along the 60-mile strip known as the Grand Strand, which stretches from the town of Little River in the north, through Myrtle Beach, Pawleys Island and Murrells Inlet, and south to Georgetown, S.C. Whatever the actual number of mini-golf opportunities, suffice it to say that you can see more plaster dinosaurs, pirates, airplanes, dragons, tiki torches and safari jeeps, more lost worlds and faux idol worship, more fountains spraying Ty-D-Bol blue water than can possibly be healthy. Whence the profusion?
"It's because it's a family beach, and mini-golf is a wholesome family activity," Detwiler tells me.
Let me repeat: 50 miniature golf courses.