There’s nothing miniscule about the role mini-golf plays in the lives of Tom Loftus and Robin Schwartzman.
The Minneapolis couple had their first date at the Big Stone mini-golf course in Minnetrista, where they later married. Every birthday, they play a round of golf there.
They’re serious players, the kind who play two to three times a week, bring their own high-end putters and balls, and have practice holes in their backyards and basements.
And they play to win. They have competed in miniature golf leagues, national tournaments, and Holey Moley, a reality show about a miniature golf obstacle course on ABC. Loftus also participates in miniature golf in virtual reality.
Over the years they have become reviews of the game. On acoupleofputts.com they post reviews of over 400 miniature golf courses they have played on across the country, plus a few in Canada, Japan , Iceland and Qatar. Their website is full of stories of mini-golf courses with live goats or alligators as part of the attraction, or a death-themed mini-golf course in the basement of a funeral home. Loftus is also the co-creator of Puttcast, a podcast devoted to all things mini golf.
Unsurprisingly, they also design miniature golf holes for art museums. They have been involved in the design of approximately 60 holes for the Walker Art Center, the Cranbrook Art Museum in the Detroit area, and the Tasmeem art and design conference in Doha, Qatar.
Mini-golf is only their secondary activity.
Loftus, 45, is the chief financial and operations officer of Pollen Midwest, a nonprofit media arts organization and founder of record label, Modern Radio. Schwartzman, 36, is an artist who teaches 3D modeling and digital fabrication at the University of Minnesota. She is also vice-president of the International Society of Caricature Artists.
Since their first meeting in 2011, they have kept a scorecard of every round played. So far they have over 1000 dashboards.
“Every day we think about mini golf to some degree,” Schwartzman said.
We talked to them about what makes a good mini golf hole, their favorite courses and why they don’t play what they call “big golf”. The story has been edited for length and clarity:
Q: Is mini golf a serious sport?
Schwartzman: For a very small group of people, it is a very serious sport. And there are definitely mini-golfers who say it should be televised.
Loft: I absolutely believe it’s a serious sport and I want to help develop a greater appreciation for competitive play. I would love to see him at the Olympics. I think what will hold it back is that in other sports like pickleball and cornhole, you have a standardized playing field. With mini-golf, the tournaments do not take place on identical courses. There are so many idiosyncrasies in a course.
Q: Describe the state of miniature golf.
Schwartzman: We have seen it go in waves. It started in the 1920s with rooftop courses. Then the Great Depression hit, and it kind of disappeared. Then we see it resurgent in the 1950s, when you have cars, road trips, and Americana by the roadside. Then you see it kind of fade away in the 1970s. And then you see a resurgence again in the 80s with family entertainment centers with arcades and roller skates and growth in the suburbs. And then it fades a bit more.
But now we’re seeing a resurgence, not only with artist-designed courses, but also technology-focused courses, those kind of Instagrammable experience courses where the environment and thematic are so immersive that everyone wants to take a picture there.
Q: Has the game had a bump due to the pandemic?
Schwartzman: During the pandemic, course owners told us they were having record seasons. It is a safe activity. It’s outside. People can naturally keep social distancing, and people weren’t really traveling on vacation, so it was something to do close to home.
Q: What makes a good miniature golf hole?
Schwartzman: It is definitely a matter of skill and luck and having the possibility of having a hole in one, but it is not guaranteed. There is a risk/reward component so maybe you can go for the narrow path or the difficult obstacle which gives you a good chance of getting a hole in one but it’s very risky so if you miss , you might be seated at three or four moves. And then the third big element is the path of the ball. If the ball goes through a bridge in a castle, you cannot physically enter that space with the ball because we are too big, but our spirit travels with it on its journey. In a way, we live by proxy the adventure of the balloon.
Q: What are your favorite courses in the Twin Cities?
Schwartzman: Lilli Putt in Coon Rapids is a great challenge course, for a putting challenge.
Loft: The other obvious is Big Stone, where we had our first date and got married. The Walker course is fast, fun, engaging and interactive.
Schwartzman: And then you can go to the museum.
Q: Favorite course anywhere?
Schwartzman: One of the best is Par-King in the Chicagoland area. There is a giant pink castle. There are perfectly trimmed hedges everywhere. Each hole is a unique journey. They repaint the whole course every year so it’s immaculate. It’s exactly what you imagine to be the ultimate miniature golf experience.
Q: Do you play golf?
Schwartzman: We call it big golf, and I’ve never played big golf.
Loft: I’ve played it a handful of times. I think some people really like to hang out in this really neat version of nature that is a golf course. I do not know. I think it takes up a lot of space where there isn’t much to do.
Q: I don’t have small children at home. I’m not a teenager on a date. Should I play mini golf?
Schwartzman: Our answer is always yes. You don’t need children. You don’t need to be on a date. Anyone can play mini golf, and it’s fun, and it’s always going to be challenging.