Crazy Golf, Mini Golf, Obstacle Golf... call it what you will, the challenge of putting a golf ball through, around or over multifarious obstacles presents an entertaining diversion for the whole family. American Mini Golf courses are elaborate, complex and frequently crowded. Continental European courses are taken seriously and are often strategic tests of putting skill. The UK, however, is the only country in the European Union that lacks a national Crazy Golf team: being the founders of the sport of golf, the British preference is for a more sedate and expansive putting green. Crazy Golf, sadly, is too frequently discounted as a mere children's game amid a belief that the art of putting can only be taken seriously on grass and turf.
Despite this, some outposts of both Crazy Golf and Putting exist in the UK. Most of these bastions are seaside resorts and one of the best known accumulations of tourist attractions is the Isle of Wight. Lying just off the South Coast of England, it features many well-known sights such as the Needles rock formation, Osborne House (former home of Queen Victoria), Tennyson Down, and several other beautiful Downs. The attraction of its miniature golf courses has been less well documented. Until now...
All prices are correct as of August 2005.
Lying adjacent to the world-famous Needles and hosting several other attractions such as the glassworks and sweet factory, Alum Bay has sadly become victim to mass tourist commercialism in recent years. Tourists merely seeking the Crazy Golf are strongly advised to walk the two or three miles from neighbouring Freshwater, as the car park is subject to a £3 charge. Likewise, refreshments are charmless and commercial: be sure to take your own sandwiches.
Jurassic Golf (Crazy Golf)
Situated in the middle of the funfair-like attractions is a well-designed and thought-out little Crazy Golf course. On a surface of well-maintained green carpet, there are a variety of holes with a natural feel, lacking geometric shapes, with the expected prehistoric theme - expect fibreglass rocks and dinosaur bones. There are no standout holes, but all require a degree of skill rather than luck. Synthesised dinosaur sounds add to the realism but tend to distract the serious golfer! The big drawback, however, is that there are only nine holes for the £2 entrance fee. A real shame: if there had been 18, this could have been one of the best on the island.
Pronounced CAWL-bon in the local dialect, Calbourne is a traditional milling village, whose main features are Winkle Street, a traditional unpolied thatched terrace, and the traditional local industry:
Calbourne Mill (Putting)
Although the admission fee to Calbourne Mill is £5 per person, the putting course is only one of its many features and costs just £1 more, making it the cheapest miniature golf on the island. And well worth the money it is too. 18 lengthy holes (20 yards plus) weave their way in between trees, ditches, hillocks and even the occasional molehill. Although Calbourne doesn't have the same strategic excellence as Brown's (qv), it has been thoughtfully designed as a diverting alternative to a regular, flat putting green. Particularly outstanding are the 4th hole, a crafty dogleg between two trees; and the 16th: a long, long downhill hole, where you give your ball a big knock and pray that it doesn't drop into the stream at the bottom.
Calbourne Mill can form the best part of a day out for the family, with a fair amount to do and look at. Refreshments on site are a bit on the quaint side (tea in china pots and ginger cake), but the location cannot be beaten.
More residential than resort, Ryde happily fulfils the role of being the 'functional' town of the Isle of Wight. Although it won't entertain teenagers for long, it yields some excellent eateries and hidden niches with diligent hunting and has extensive sands when the tide is out.
Puckpool Park (Crazy Golf and Putting)
During the Second World War, Puckpool Point was home to a medium-sized mortar battery. Today, the battery has been converted into a modest but interesting park, featuring not only tennis and the highly-recommended Dell Cafe, but two miniature golf attractions. The Crazy Golf looks tired and neglected, but is still a subtle test of skill. The designers were clearly fond of mushrooms (make of that what you will), and most holes feature spotted protrusions, off which it is possible to manufacture interesting 'trick shots'. Sadly, a couple of holes have not been maintained well: the twelfth's tunnel has become nigh-on impossible as a result. The best holes are the ninth and tenth: two exciting banked holes which can be holed in one with the necessary accurate judgment. For inexplicable reasons, the designers saw fit to only include 15 holes, which must also count as a mark against.
The putting green at Puckpool is a thorough disappointment. On a little plateau above the Crazy Golf and footpath, it lacks any strategic test or imagination. When the variable quality of the grass underfoot is factored in, it removes any skill element and makes for a very frustrating test.
Puckpool Park is also home to tennis and several cafes, the best of which lies on the seafront and is a perfect way to while away a few hours with a freshly-prepared baguette and drink, alcoholic or otherwise.
Sandown has become the Isle's tacky seaside resort par excellence. Tourists who venture away from the seafront will find charms such as the zoo on Yaverland seafront, and the rest are simply advised not to buy any of the many tacky souvenirs on offer!
Situated next door to the Isle Of Wight Zoo, Brown's makes a good job of playing itself up as a family golf activity, featuring as it does a short pitch-and-putt course, and two putting courses, as well as an amenable clubhouse and cafe. Putting enthusiasts can choose between the 'long putting' course, which is frankly a bit overwrought and exhausting, and the much more exciting 'bantam putting'. Don't let the name put you off! The bantam course is stunningly planned, using the modest contours on the lawn in front of the clubhouse to maximum effect. Fairways, rough and bunkers are cut as they would be on a full-size course and present a similar challenge. The first half-dozen holes, in particular, are a delight as you watch the contours guide balls down the expertly-cut fairways. The 17th hole is Bantam's equivalent of a Par 5: subtly curving and hard to hit close in two. A interesting putting experience if ever there was one.
The 'clubhouse' at Browns doesn't live up to the cosy atmosphere it suggests. It is a soulless and overpriced buffet-style cafe. Best to get a quick cuppa and take your leave.
'Pirate' Golf (Crazy Golf)
This course is tucked up in the far right-hand corner of the Sandown Pier, and is only likely to be found after a serious search or with prior knowledge - possibly both. It is worth the effort of finding it, though. It's only a short course of nine holes, but the designers have done a marvellous job of fitting that many holes into what is a very small space indeed. The holes are all green carpet and fibreglass, with the odd treasure chest or Jolly Roger thrown in. The course is entirely enclosed in the pier building, and so provides punters with the unusual experience of playing a round of crazy golf entirely under artificial light. Upon completing the course you are given a two-for-one voucher for a return visit, and if you have the time it could well be worth making use of it, or just handing it to a passing stranger if you haven't.
Sandham Lodge (Putting and Crazy Golf)
A mediocre tea room on the north end of Sandown's seafront, Sandham Lodge has two further attractions round the back. The crazy golf is set on painted concrete, but sadly has fallen into a state of decline. The 'dishes' around the holes and the chips in the concrete make accuracy all but futile and reduce the game to sheer luck. Even the more interesting holes (the 6th, where you drop down a level through a pipe, and the 10th, a high bridge over the stream) are rendered pointless by this enforced randomness. The 17th - a seemingly straightforward right-angle bank shot - cannons balls off the course, such is the poor design.
The putting green at Sandham Lodge is impeccably manicured, but not laid out with any real thought, hence it suffers as a result. Putters are forced to play over mushroom-shaped mounds more frequently than they would like; some of the skill element is forcibly removed, and the green sadly suffers as a result.
Shanklin does an excellent job of not rising to 'Big Brother' Sandown's taunts. It remains a charming seaside town, with spectacular views down Shanklin Chine, good shopping, the historic Old Village, and a relatively quiet esplanade. Perhaps most importantly, it is a miniature golfer's paradise, with no less than three venues.
'The Jungle' Golf (Crazy Golf)
The Jungle is an all-in-one amusement centre for young children and their parents. It sounds tacky, and refreshments are limited to candyfloss and fizzy drinks, but on the whole it is nicely presented and has an excellent crazy golf course. Making the most of limited space, the course has been set part indoors, and part on a balcony, all the while keeping a good atmospheric feel1. Like Alum Bay's course, it runs heavy on fibreglass and the green-carpeted putting surface feels very natural. The hole design is a step ahead, though: it gives players of all standards a challenge at every shot and makes everyone want to play onwards to the next hole. The third hole, particularly, is of excellent design, using subterranean tubes and multiple levels to best advantage. Unfortunately, there are only 12 holes to play, but the rather easy 'Bonus Hole' gives one a more-than-fair opportunity to win a free round.
Rylstone Gardens (Crazy Golf)
At the top end of Shanklin Chine, Rylstone Gardens offers a sumptuous setting for a crazy golf. And, amid baskets upon baskets of flowering plants, the course does not disappoint. A wealth of 'up, under and through' obstacles, wrought carefully from sheet iron, provide a fun way to knock a golf ball around for half an hour. All the holes are nicknamed, which adds to the intimate touch. The tenth hole ('The Trap') is a Heath Robinson-esque design of complexity; the 16th ('Becher's Brook') is a challenging water-jump; and the 18th ('That's Yer Lot') provides a three-dimensional test of skill, the ball travelling under the hole, before looping up and backwards to the final putting area. The only problem with Rylstone's otherwise excellent course is the wood and fibre glass 'tables' on which the course is laid out. They are quite small, very regular in shape and present an insufficient challenge to adults. But, at £1.75 a round, it's the cheapest Crazy Golf on the island.
The adjoining cafe is amiable and friendly, with plenty of outdoor seating where you can enjoy the flora or the efforts of others on the Crazy Golf. The beautiful, if pricey, Shanklin Chine is right next door. As a diversion for a couple of hours, Rylstone Gardens cannot be recommended highly enough.
Shanklin Esplanade (Crazy Golf and Putting)
The Esplanade courses are owned by the Isle Of Wight County Council, who also own the courses at Sandham Lodge. But, perhaps because of the less intense tourism, the courses at Shanklin are better maintained. The crazy golf is delightfully planted with flowering plants and, although it features the same hole designs as Sandham, plays easier, because the holes are raised slightly above the playing area (rather than dished) and because the concrete playing surface is less chipped. Admittedly, this smoother surface doesn't let the ball rest quickly, and with the consequent rebounds some part is played to luck, but at least here you don't feel cheated by the course.
The putting green on the Esplanade is well-cut and rolls excitingly between flowerbeds. Although the pin layout seems a little haphazard, the lie of the land helps the course play well and most holes present an original and different challenge. The layout of the green is changed regularly, which clearly shows good intent in keeping standards of maintenance high.
Never a town to be commercialised, Ventnor has long been a traditional lobster-pot village. The Shore Company, Browns, have been established for nearly two centuries, and now combine their fishing duties with coast guarding and deckchair-hire. Ventnor remains an unspoilt, undemanding little resort.
Ventnor Park (Putting)
An unassuming little course near the Botanic Gardens, Ventnor's putting course is inexpensive at £1.50, but has little more variety than a croquet lawn. Because it only has 12 holes, it's sadly little more than an afterthought.
If you want to play crazy golf on the Isle of Wight, then Shanklin must surely be the place you visit. If, however, you are a more serious putter, then head north to Sandown and the great challenge that awaits at Brown's.