By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"There's a few that probably struggle," he says with the air of a man whose miniature golf courses do not struggle. "It is overbuilt."
Still, every evening, when the temperature at last drops into the 80s, here they come: sunburned dads hoping to extend their beer buzzes from dinner and kids exhausted from long days playing in dishwater-gray waves on a sand-castle-ready shoreline.
The mood on the course at such hours is subdued, the silence broken only occasionally by the sound of fountains. And every 20 minutes by an erupting volcano.
I decide to accept the fact -- as I drive by Captain Hook's and Dragon's Lair and Mt. Atlanticus -- that the mystery of Myrtle Beach's elaborate shrines to miniature golf will never be solved. Like the wrath unleashed by the Mayan god Chak on the golfers at Cancun Lagoon, you just have to roll with it.
* * *
I experience the same low-level confusion on my second day, when I happen upon Myrtle Beach's much-anticipated tourist attraction, Hard Rock Park. A few miles up U.S. Route 501 from the beach, the first theme park by the ubiquitous restaurant and hotel chain opened in April. It is a 55-acre homage to rock-and-roll that has more than 50 rides, shows and dining spots. There are several stages for live music, of course, but also dozens of double-take-inducing visuals and a mother lode of "huh?" moments. In short, yet one more nutty Myrtle Beach dream has been realized.
Hard Rock, which cost $400 million to build, may be the first amusement park to come with an orientation film, which plays continuously in a theater just inside the gates. It makes a passionate case for the place's validity.
"You could argue that it all started at an amusement park in the '40s," a narrator says, "it" being rock-and-roll. You see, it was during that decade that Elvis placed second in a state fair singing competition. In short order, we learn that Elvis also performed in 1956 at the Mississippi-Alabama State Fair, which, if you think about it, was sort of an amusement park. The Beatles played the Indiana State Fair in 1964. Also, Bruce Springsteen grew up near Palisades Park in New Jersey.
After 10 minutes of this, you simply can't believe that a rock-and-roll amusement park wasn't built sooner and are thus primed to enter a world where walls are splashed with Nirvana quotes ("Here we are now, entertain us") and rock legends are judged on the quality of the roller coaster they inspire.
Led Zeppelin -- The Ride is one of these. It is a mind-bending six-inversion loop coaster, one you are allowed to board only after watching a short film featuring "rare interviews" from the '70s with Robert Plant et al. These are of the we're-just-trying-to-have-fun-out-there variety and do not represent an important contribution to Zeppeliniana. Nevertheless, the ride is by far the most exciting attraction at Hard Rock, its main competition something called Eagles Life in the Fast Lane (a traditional coaster) and Nights in White Satin -- The Trip (a tunnel of love with holograms).
Finding myself in what I'll call British Invasion land, in the air-conditioned comfort of the Carnaby Street Cafe (bangers and mash, $8.49), I study the park map, quickly homing in on an attraction called Magic Mushroom Garden. The name is a reference to psilocybin, of course, a hallucinogen favored by members of the '60s generation, rock musicians among them. At Hard Rock Park, however, it's a children's ride with multicolored toadstools, and the only restriction is that you be at least 40 inches tall.
Like Cancun Lagoon, where an entire round of mini-golf can be played inside a Chichen Itza-like temple, Hard Rock's real feat is not its coasters or conceit, but its success at thoroughly gutting rock -- both the culture and music -- of its meaning. As such, it is now free to become the handmaiden of moon bounces (the Punk Pit) and tumble buckets (Reggae River Falls) and therefore a perfect addition to the Myrtle Beach entertainment scene.
* * *
My final day in town takes me back to Hawaiian Rumble, where I can't help but marvel at the meticulous care Taylor takes of the course. There is the temperamental volcano, of course, which for years ran on kerosene until the city forced Taylor to reconfigure it and switch to propane. There are the palm trees wrapped in Christmas lights. ("Sometimes the kids get it in their heads to use the clubs to break them.") There are the lakes that each year have to be drained, refilled and dyed an impossible blue. ("A little concentrated bottle like this costs $90.") There are the ducks. Or rather, there were the ducks. ("I'm not really thrilled about the ducks. They have a tendency to leave their droppings on the carpet.")
And then there are the perfectly textured greens, which Taylor happily rips up and replaces each season. ("This carpet costs $14 a yard, but it plays better than the carpet they wanna sell everybody.") No one knows when or if the International Olympic Committee is planning a visit to Hawaiian Rumble, but if it does, Taylor is unlikely to be caught off-guard. And even if it never comes, Taylor most likely won't lose his warm, enthusiastic manner or his steadfast dedication to the volcano.
"The only time I'll get mad is when you disrespect me," Taylor tells me, continuing his vigorous defense of this life in miniature. "There was this one guy who came in here and told me I had a chicken [expletive] little job. I took out my dentures, set them down right here and calmly walked around the counter. I asked him, 'Do you want to settle this?' "
The man, declining to further challenge Taylor's raison d'etre, strode quietly out the door.
Scott Vogel will discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. with The Flight Crew.