Course Work: A Look At Innovative Miniature Golf Course Design

In miniature golf, windmills and clowns are so over. Designed on computers, today’s layouts demand skill. By evolving with the game, a little Shore company has become an industry giant.

Harris Miniature Golf, based in Wildwood, designed and built this state-of-the-art 18-hole layout, called Skyline Mini-Golf, for the Township of Woodbridge. The top two photos were taken in November 2011, about halfway through construction. By the time the photos below them were taken, in August of this year, about five months after opening, the facility had already turned a profit.
Photo by Marc Steiner.

Glenn Lynn was fresh out of Rutgers in 1991, wondering what he could do with his landscape architecture degree. Ambitiously, he sent a resume to Harris Enterprises in the hopes of becoming a golf-course designer.

“Back then, they told us to be creative in our resumes, so I sent this fancy thing with a tree and an open sky,” he recalls. The boss, Rich Lahey, liked what Lynn sent and called him immediately.

“He left a message about being from Harris Miniature Golf,” says Lynn, who at first dismissed it as a wrong number. But eventually he called, went to Wildwood for an interview and, very much needing a job and wanting to work at the Shore, decided to give it a whirl.

Two decades later, Lynn is chief operations officer at Harris, second in command of one of the largest miniature golf design and construction companies in the nation.

“It may not be Augusta National,” he says, “but I am really proud of the work we do, and the millions of people who play our courses.”

In 1991, mini golf “was primarily a resort game, where people came once a year and no one really cared what they scored, just so it was fun,” he says. “It is more of a skill game these days, and we have had to adapt.”

Harris courses now sport water hazards, fairway-like approaches, multiple levels and undulating greens. The tacky windmills of the past are nowhere to be found.

“The trend is to have something that people may go to a few times a year,” says Lynn. That has meant more demand for inland courses. A more flickering trend over the last decade were indoor, black-light courses. Successes include Medieval Fantasy, a Harris course on the boardwalk in Ocean City, but the problem with indoor courses is that they lack curb appeal.

“You want people to see your course from the road,” says Lynn. “That is what attracts people to play. Indoor courses can work on the boardwalk, but we don’t do them much otherwise.” 

Some localities have turned to mini-golf to boost revenues. Expounding on the animal theme of Essex County’s Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, Harris designed and built a 19-hole layout with 14 creature features, including a 12-foot-tall elephant. It opened in 2010, about the same time the Township of Woodbridge hired Harris to build a mini-golf course on a few acres of open land opposite its ice- and roller-rinks.

That layout opened April 9. By the end of August it had amassed a profit of $65,000, slightly more than projected.

“It took a few weeks for people to know we were there and kids to get out of school,” says Vito Cimilluca, Woodbridge’s recreation director. “But this is beautiful, and now we have kids on dates, families and even corporate parties.”

The layout Harris designed for Paramus in 2007 generates about $250,000 in annual fees—enabling  its construction bond issue to be paid back in two years. Holes 4 and 17 intersect at right angles, just like Routes 4 and 17.

The designing at Harris is primarily done on computers. Harris employs about 15 people, including a landscape architect, a designer and construction crew in an old warehouse in downtown Wildwood, and builds about 25 courses a year for clients around the country, though mainly in the Northeast.

Joe Harris, a Wildwood handyman, started the business in the 1950s, building all the hazards himself and selling courses mostly at the Shore. More than 30 years passed before he decided he needed a salesman. On a Friday, Harris hired Rich Lahey. He was supposed to start work that Monday, but over the weekend Harris died of a heart attack. Lahey stayed on, and is now company president.

The company occasionally is asked to recreate an actual golf hole or two on a smaller scale on private property, but typically refers such customers to designers of full-size courses. But when music producer Fred Jerkins (who with his brother Rodney has written and produced songs for Brandy, Destiny’s Child and Whitney Houston) wanted a nine-hole miniature layout at his home in Galloway Township, Lynn warmed to the task.

“Some people, like Fred, just like the short game,” he says. “We can do that better than anyone.”

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